The brief (less than a day) blockage of all of Russian Wikipedia has jostled the country’s web users, and shone a light on Moscow’s arbitrary, often rash internet censorship practices.
Following a court order issued from the small southern town of Chyorny Yar demanding that a Wikipedia page providing information about a narcotic known as charas be edited, Russia’s internet watchdog Roskomnadzor requested internet service providers to block access to the article as a whole until its revision. The trouble came when ISPs discovered that Wikipedia employs a secure HTTPS protocol, meaning that some ISPs had to block all of Wikipedia in order to block just one page. (According to Wikimedia executives, most ISPs in Russia lack the equipment to bypass its protocols.) Shortly after Russian netizens found their access to all of Wikipedia disabled, officials lifted the ban saying that the charas page had been adequately altered. Reports indicate that Russian Wikipedia editors are now trying to figure out how to move forward. TechCrunch quotes Wikimedia:
The Russian Wikipedia community has held active discussions regarding the notice and article. Editors have made significant changes to the article, adding further information and citations to reliable sources, bringing it in line with Wikipedia’s standards for neutrality and reliability. The community has also added a notification banner to Russian Wikipedia, pointing out to users that the site may be blocked.
It goes without saying that a country-wide block of one of the world’s most popular websites is uncalled for following a request from one small town regarding a page revision. But, of course, this active tightening of the noose around access to U.S.-based internet services is nothing new for the Kremlin. For years now — although more so following the Snowden leaks — the government has sought to regulate access and content on sites like Facebook, Reddit, and Wikipedia. Indeed, a full-on block of Reddit a couple of weeks ago highlights Roskomnadzor’s recent, heavy targeting of web content related to drugs. The agency blocked the site over pages that provide details about cultivating certain narcotics, only lifting the ban after Reddit complied and blocked the content from Russian viewership.
Russia is also currently probing Google’s search engine’s presence in the country, and earlier this year was looking at raising taxes on digital companies — a move many saw as targeting U.S.-based tech giants. But it is Moscow’s style to make widespread, sudden crackdowns, rather than gradually blocking or eliminating access to content as part of a general government policy. If past is prologue, this will not be the Kremlin’s last rash act of content blockage.