Roskomnadzor-2017: Nearly banning Telegram but permitting jerks
In 2017, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) has introduced new Internet restrictions, had a public argument with Durov, helped Kadyrov, and permitted obscenities.
In our end-of-year review, we could not omit a governmental body whose decisions directly affect us. In 2018, this watchdog authority is going to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its struggle for peace of mind in the Russian society and protection of the public against harmful (in its view) information.
The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) has achieved a lot in the recent years: thousands of blocked web sites, new crazy initiatives aimed at further suppression of Runet, and of course, arrests. Arrests of those having the imprudence to forget that today is not 2007 when it was possible to tell someone where to go, how to get there, and how long one should stay.
Since the introduction of a registry of web sites containing information dangerous for children in 2012 – that, according to Nikolai Nikiforov, Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications, was not supposed to bring censorship to the Internet – the punitive agency has made a good progress. Initially it was presented as the struggle against child pornography in the Internet, calls for suicide, information pertaining to production and use of drugs, and extremist materials. Then it turned out that the global network poses risks not only for children, but for people 18 years old and up as well – which is especially disturbing in the election year.
On December 11, Roskomnadzor has blocked the web site of Open Russia on the grounds that the organization of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is “unwanted” in the country. This term has been introduced to the Russian legislation in 2015 and applies to those who don’t fall under the ‘foreign agent law’ but still must be banned.
Therefore, a vague term – “unwanted” – was invented: any foreign or international organization whose activities pose threats to Russia may be declared “unwanted”. The Prosecutor General’s Office and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) are responsible for identification of such organizations.
But apparently, Roskomnadzor was so busy with the ‘adult’ issues that it has forgotten about its original declared purpose – protection of children. According to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR), the number of children’s suicides grows in Russia with every year. Some 400 children took their own lives in 2014, 504 – in 2015, and 720 – in 2016. Only Kazakhstan and Suriname have higher children’s suicide rates, while in Europe and the U.S. these are three times lower.
Trends of the year
In 2017, Roskomnadzor has learned two new words: Telegram and VPN.
The enactment of a law in Russia does not necessarily mean that it goes into effect immediately. The authorities are not going to start controlling the compliance with it right away. Many laws have been approved ‘for future use’. Just in case.
For instance, a transition period is still de facto ongoing for the Law on Personal Data approved back in 2015 and obliging foreign companies having Russian clients to transfer their servers to our country.
However, in November 2016, LinkedIn business- and employment-oriented social networking service used mostly by managers and businessmen has been blocked in Russia. It was a trial balloon swallowed by the public.
Twitter hasn’t relocated the required servers to Russia yet, but it is not blocked because of its promise to complete this process in 2018. According to Alexander Zharov, Head of Roskomnadzor, negotiations with Viber and WhatsApp are currently ongoing.
Facebook – a social network traditionally accumulating and mobilizing ‘angered city dwellers’ – has already received a warning. Should the company fail to comply with the requirement in 2018, it may be blocked.
It is necessary to note the mental differences making it impossible to reach an understanding between the Russian governmental agency and foreign (mostly American) services. Each Russian citizen understands why Roskomnadzor wants to keep the servers containing personal data of users in our country. But Americans either sincerely don’t understand this or pretend so. For instance, the Facebook administration believes that this is senseless because there is no Moscow or, for instance, Voronezh, or New York Internet. The Internet traffic is global regardless of the geographic location of the servers. Therefore, the relocation of the data storage devices to Russia won’t affect the security of users in any way – contrary to the claims of Roskomnadzor.
On April 12, 2017, Zello – an application emulating push-to-talk walkie-talkies over cell phone – has been blocked. Perhaps, because its owner failed to submit on time the information for inclusion into the Registry of Information Dissemination Organizers obliging the services to store messages sent and received by their users. This registry has been created in 2014 following the approval of ‘Yarovaya package’ – anti-terrorist amendments to the legislation. Or may be, because Zello was popular among truck drivers using it for coordination of protests against Platon toll system.
In early May, Roskomnadzor has included several other messengers into the blacklist of prohibited web sites: BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), LINE, Imo.im, and Chinese audio and video chat WeChat (later it provided the required information and was unblocked).
Mail.ru Agent, VK, Odnoklassniki, and ICQ have complied with the requirements of the Russian authorities. WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and some others haven’t done so yet.
Conflict with Durov
Roskomnadzor has submitted a request to provide their contact information to the owners of Telegram as well. No answer was received, and on June 23, Zharov has published an open letter to Pavel Durov, founder of Telegram and former owner of VK, informing him that “the time is running out” and the messenger must be registered in Russia in order to prevent its blocking. The Head of Roskomnadzor has noted that the requirement is simple: fill-out the information form for the company managing Telegram. Durov took up the gauntlet and responded to Zharov that the threat to block the messenger “seems a kind of sabotage of state interests” because as soon as Roskomnadzor blocks Telegram, correspondences of Russian officials, including personal communication and “sensitive data” would be transferred by the users to U.S.-based WhatsApp and Viber.
This was not the end of the discussion between Durov and Zharov: the official has stated that Durov is “neutral towards terrorists and criminals” and “ignores the security of ordinary Telegram users”.
Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of Chechnya, has commented the Zharov’s message and invited Durov and Zharov to Grozny for negotiations. German Klimenko, Presidential Adviser for Internet Development, has noted that he does not see a big issue in the possible blocking of Telegram in Russia. After all, there are plenty of messengers available, for instance, ICQ – Klimenko was either joking or trying to show his ‘proficiency’.
Durov: In less than a month, Telegram has blocked over 5 thousand public channels and groups related to the terrorism propaganda.
Zharov: The owner of Telegram “consistently demonstrates his legal nihilism” and puts lives of millions at risk by refusing to provide information keys to world secret services.
Durov: Not only does this requirement contradict Article 23 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulating the right to privacy of correspondence but also demonstrates lack of knowledge of communication encryption methods used in 2017.
The Russian authorities could not tolerate an appeal to the Constitution, and, at the behest of the Federal Security Service (FSB), federal media outlets have unleashed the outrage on Durov.
“It is found that the terrible terrorist attack in the St. Petersburg subway had been coordinated and planned remotely, via Telegram, – a journalist claimed on a federal TV channel. – This is not surprising: being the owner of VK, he (Durov) had concealed the information on administrators of Euromaidan groups, while earlier, he had mocked veterans of World War II and compared the U.S.S.R. to Germany”.
The Telegram team responded that they are working on a simple bypass method against the potential blocking of the messenger in Russia: “We promise that this would be done in two clicks and anyone can handle it”.
Ultimately, Zharov decided to defuse the tension. He said that the Russian authorities do not require Durov to provide access to the correspondence of Telegram users. “The question is in five identifiers that must be provided to Roskomnadzor by the messenger; these will be officially included into the Registry of Information Dissemination Organizers. Period,” – the Head of Roskomnadzor has noted.
Then the Russian media announced that Durov agrees to provide information required for the inclusion of the messenger into the Registry of Information Dissemination Organizers. According to him, the registration information of the messenger is available to all Internet users in open sources. “If this is all the regulatory authority wants, I have no objections against the use of these data for the registration of Telegram Messenger LLP in the Registry of Information Dissemination Organizers,” – said the Telegram founder and provided a link to the registry of companies incorporated in the U.K. and including Telegram.
Durov added though that the company won’t comply with “anti-constitutional and technically unfeasible” ‘Yarovaya package’ and other laws “inconsistent with the right to the inviolability of private life”.
On June 28, Zharov announced that Telegram has begun operating in the legal framework.
The channel of Ramzan Kadyrov, who has become a Telegram user a few days before the duel between Durov and Zharov, has published a message:
“Telegram won’t be blocked. No need to thank”.
Who knows, may be such issues are indeed in control of the Head of the Chechen Republic?..
But the story was not over yet. On September 27, Durov announced that the FSB has issued an administrative protocol against Telegram due to its “non-compliance with anti-constitutional ‘Yarovaya package’”.
Later it became known that Telegram was fined 800 thousand rubles ($13.9 thousand) for the refusal to provide encryption keys to the FSB.
So, the essence of the dialog was like this:
— You must provide company information.
— Are you supporting terrorists?
— No, quite the opposite.
— Then why don’t you provide the company information? We don’t request you to provide access to the users.
— OK then. Take it in open sources.
— Fine, the issue solved. Go ahead and operate. By the way, you must pay 800 thousand rubles ($13.9 thousand) for the refusal to provide encryption keys.
In early December, Telgram has filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation asking to recognize null and void the FSB order to provide encryption keys to the users’ correspondence.
In mid-December, Agora International Human Rights Group representing Telegram has addressed the United Nations asking to interfere into the situation. Not only was the FSB request illegal, not only was it technically impossible to provide the decryption key to the agency, but the lawyers have also pointed out a number of inconsistencies in the FSB order. The special service had requested to provide information pertaining to six telephone numbers, including telephones of brothers Azimov arrested in the framework of the investigation of the terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. According to the attorneys, the suspects had never used the Telegram messenger. Furthermore, the FSB has requested their correspondence since July 12, 2017 – while the brothers were arrested back in April.
Amid the scandals, Telegram has been recognized the most dynamically growing messenger at year-end 2017 based on the number of downloads and size of its Russian audience.
On July 21, the State Duma approved a bill prohibiting citizens from bypassing blocks imposed by Roskomnadzor with the use of VPN services and anonymizers. According to the new law, service providers must block blacklisted web sites and collaborate with the state authorities. In the event of a refusal, they may be blocked in 30 days. Search engines providing links to anonymizers and VPN services may be fined up to 700 thousand rubles ($12.1 thousand).
During the second reading of the bill, the FSB and MIA have been designated the organizations responsible for the tracking of block bypassing services instead of Roskomnadzor who is now responsible for the identification of providers used by the services.
On November 1, after the approval in the Council of the Federation, the law has come into effect.
Even before its enactment, the bill had raised numerous questions in the professional Internet community – especially taking that no public hearings were held. The main questions were:
If VPN services are permitted for commercial purposes, how to distinguish between the commercial and private purposes?
How would foreign hosting providers and service react to the requirements of the FSB and MIA?
After the approval of the law, most foreign VPN services have expectedly ignored the requirements of the Russian authorities. After all, they have been established not to block web sites, but quite for the opposite. The common stance was as follows: the service is incorporated abroad and, therefore, complies with the local laws that don’t restrict it in any way. After all, everybody opposes censorship.
Nothing has changed after the entry of the law into legal force. VPN services and anonymizers still operate, while search engines continue providing links to those. The Internet community hasn’t got answers to its questions and reacted in its normal way by completely ignoring the new requirements. The counter move of the law enforcement authorities may be the identification of block bypassing incidents. If this does not help, the only solution would be to oblige all the providers to acquire the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) system in order to filter the entire traffic. The problem is that it is pretty expensive – so who is going to pay for it?
It is necessary to note that in early 2016, Alexander Zharov, Head of Roskomnadzor, had told in an interview to Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper that it is useless to struggle against anonymizers. “New programs would come instead of the blocked ones, and this race is never-ending,” – Zharov has explained. As though he saw it in a crystal ball...
More laws on top of it
By the way, a new law restricting the anonymity of messengers’ users has come into effect on January 1, 2018. According to it, owners of messengers must sign agreements with mobile network operators, thus, making it possible to track users by their phone numbers. In addition, the messengers must restrict the exchange of messages upon request of state authorities. Should a messenger fail to comply with the above requirements, it may be blocked at the mobile network level.
Vitaly Milonov, Deputy of the State Duma representing Edinaya Rossia (the United Russia) Party, had earlier proposed to prohibit the anonymity on social networks. He has suggested to forbid minors of 14 and downward to register on social networks and oblige other users to provide their passport information in order to register.
The protest rally photo: Vlad Dokshin
In October, Alexander Bortnikov, Director of the FSB, said at a conference of heads of special services and law enforcement authorities that his agency supports the ban on sales of anonymous SIM cards and anonymity in messengers. According to him, terrorists use messengers for communication – therefore, instead of tracking individual persons, it would be better to deanonymize all the users at once.
On May 11, the President of Russia has signed a decree regulating services ‘resembling mass media’. The services resembling mass media include social networks, news aggregators, messengers, Internet TV – i.e. the entire Internet space where people can post their comments. The President approved a development strategy for the period of 2017–2030. The Government must produce an implementation plan for that strategy by October 1 and amend the relevant documents in accordance with the strategy within one year.
In addition, the Deputies have approved amendments tightening the control over illegal SIM cards. However, taking that such a card can be easily purchased (or even received for free) on any big terminal or market, the effectiveness of such laws seems questionable.
However, since this summer, Roskomnadzor can prohibit a mobile operator from providing services to customers whose personal data don’t match those set in the service agreement. This allows to cut off communications for any selected person who must then prove his/her identity and ownership of the SIM card.
In November, the State Duma has unanimously approved an amendment designating any foreign media funded from abroad a foreign agent. This is an amendment to the law regulating non-judicial blocking of web sites belonging to organizations prohibited in Russia. The media designated foreign agents are to be regulated similarly with non-commercial organizations designated foreign agents.
Chairman of the ICR Alexander Bastyrkin, envious of the new powers granted to the Prosecutor General’s Office, has suggested to block web sites with extremist materials without due process of law – the ICR would arbitrarily decide who is an extremist and who is not.
In fall, the Deputies had planned to examine a bill raising fines for distribution of illegal content and slander on social networks. The proposed amount of these fines was 3–5 million rubles ($52.3–87.1 thousand) for individuals and 30–50 million rubles ($522.6–871 thousand) for legal entities. However, the bill was not submitted at the past sessions. Perhaps, the Deputies are going to debate it in spring.
The special services are not the only beneficiaries of the actions of Roskomnadzor. Authorities of all levels are also willing to suppress (at least, virtually) political undesirables.
For instance, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, the Human Rights Ombudsman in the Chechen Republic, suggested to restrict Internet resources writing about kidnappings in Chechnya. He announced his intention to address the Prosecutor’s Office and Roskomnadzor to block Caucasian Knot and Kavkazr.com web sites “undermining the image” of the republic in their publications.
The Regional Motor Transport Union has submitted a complaint against BlaBlaCar long-distance ridesharing community. According to that complaint, after the entrance of BlaBlaCar to the Krasnodar krai market, the volume of inter-city trucking has dropped by 15–20%.
Roskomnadzor on VK
The prohibitive laws enabled regional law enforcement structures to search for malefactors in libraries and schools. For instance, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Novosibirsk Region has fined and brought to disciplinary liability librarians for free access to information. According to the Regional Prosecutor’s Office, “it was possible in the library not only to read in the Internet materials recognized extremist by courts but also obtain information on acquiring narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances”.
The Prosecutor’s Office of the Town of Berezovsky of the Sverdlovsk Region has checked the local social rehabilitation center and found that, despite the content filtration system, users, including minors, may get free access to web sites containing literature included into the Federal List of Extremist Materials.
Popular among the youth, VK social network also contributes, jointly with the law enforcement authorities, to the prosecution of Internet users. For instance, the administrator of Eavesdropped Tver Region group has been sentenced to a conditional term in November for incitement to hatred to Ukrainians. As they say, gods may do what cattle may not...
The vigilance of the Prosecutor’s Office, combined with the powers of Roskomnadzor, have saved the Russian citizens in the last year from forbidden ‘sanctioned’ products: two web sites offering Italian and Spanish sausages and diary products to South Urals residents were blocked.
Based on a verdict of Ul’yanovsk Court, Roskomnadzor has blocked a Spanish Internet store offering Jamón.
Saratov prosecutors found ads of German and Italian cheeses on Instagram.
It is necessary to note that the ‘food war’ is still ongoing on the Internet despite the stance of the customs service permitting goods purchased “for personal use”.
Overall, everybody uses the law to the fullest – somebody for work, somebody – as a labor of love. We have no idea what has happened in the personal life of Deputy Vitaly Milonov – but in July he asked Roskomnadzor to ban online dating applications in Russia. In September, he has called for tougher restrictions against rappers Oxxxymiron and Gnojnyj.
“Garbage music is not appropriate for our city. We must remember about its imperial status. Awake your inner St. Petersburg snobbery. Oxxxymiron and Gnojnyj should be executed by a fire squad,” – Milonov said. Of course, such words pronounced by a Deputy have nothing to do with extremism....
Oxxxymiron and Gnojnyj
It turned out that the agency chaired by Zharov is not immune to the youth culture as well. Roskomnadzor has issued a protocol listing swear words used by the rappers and providing the duration of their obscenities and then fined six news portals who had published the video of their battle: RIA Novosti (News Russian Information Agency), Moskovsky Komsomolets, Argumenty i Fakty (Arguments and Facts), Republic, Dozhd (Rain) TV Channel, and Maxim magazine.
You are a governmental body...
On the other hand, Roskomnadzor should not be demonized. Zharov claims that his agency “stands sentinel over the freedom of speech and obstructs any kinds of censorship by all means”. Therefore, in November, Roskomnadzor requested Google to explain why Federal News Agency (RIA FAN) was excluded from Google News searches. It is known that RIA FAN has ties with businessman Evgeny Prigozhin and ‘troll factory’ whose personnel post pro-Russia materials and comments on social networks and forums.
Not only does Roskomnadzor care about each and every online resource, but about each Russian Internet user as well. The agency actively advocates their rights. For instance, on December 26, after the blocking of Facebook and Instagram accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov, Roskomnadzor has submitted letters to these companies requesting to provide grounds for their actions. The blocking could be possibly related to the recent American sanctions against the Head of the Chechen Republic. So, as you can see, the Russian authorities do really care about their citizens.
Surprisingly, but some people are displeased with the performance of Roskomnadzor. Nikolai Nikiforov, Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications, has admitted the inefficiency of Internet blocks. He believes that the constant progress won’t allow to achieve the goal and a new bypassing technology would be invented for every new block.
Valentina Matvienko, Chairwoman of the Council of the Federation, has also criticized Roskomnadzor and requested it to intensify the struggle against information on the Internet:
“You are an executive governmental body responsible for this. You are responsible for this sphere and you must take a strong line and use all the possibilities. Where is your activity?” – Matvienko asked.
In other words, we are drifting towards a swamp, but too slowly.
“The President, State Duma, and Council of the Federation give you instructions; don’t you understand that your goal must be the result, not the process? So far, it seems to be a lack of initiative and no interest in solving critical issues,” – she added.
After such harsh words, Roskomnadzor apparently feels its lameness and doubles efforts to prove the opposite by interfering into all the spheres somehow related to the Internet and computers.
In the end, we would like to tell about the main achievement of the agency chaired by Zharov in the year of 2017. In later July, Novaya Gazeta newspaper asked Roskomnadzor to clarify a delicate issue with obscene words that, according to the law, can not be quoted or used by the media. Roskomnadzor is determined to systematize everything and introduce black and white lists, so could it please explain the usage of some words not blacklisted by the censorship?
“We are concerned, – Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov wrote, – about the usage of obscene word “mudilo/mudak” (jerk) in our articles”.
Eleven days later, Zharov has provided a comprehensive answer stating that the word referred to in the newspaper’s inquiry is obscene but not prohibited by the censorship and, therefore, the Law of the Russian Federation on Mass Media does not apply to it. In other words, it can be used.
Six months ago, no one could predict the state of the MIA General Administration for St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region by the time of the forthcoming elections. After the appointment of Moscow general Roman Plugin in charge of it, the St. Petersburg police has undergone significant changes. Major general of justice Oleg Antropov, Head of the Main Investigations Directorate, is ‘the last man standing’ from the old command of the MIA General Administration. Most probably, he is going to become the next victim of ‘janitor’ Plugin.