NEWS

Russia at war with Wikipedia

“Soon the calendar will flip to 2015 – a new year will begin, but it will be business as usual for Russia as the Kremlin persists in the inexorable drumbeat of totalitarianism. Reeling under the weight of international sanctions, the collapse of oil prices, and the precipitous decline in the rouble, Russia is taking steps to keep its citizens in the dark” 

“It’s dejá vu all over again”, former baseball great and master of the malaprop Yogi Berra stated many years ago. And indeed, when it comes to Russia and censorship, it is dejá vu. I wrote the blurb above nearly a year and a half ago in this space, but it could have been written yesterday because Russia is yet again flexing its repressive, anti-speech muscles. This time the victim is Wikipedia.

Many articles have been written in the past by myself and Douglas Crawford about Kremlin crackdowns on other targets – bloggers, VPN and Tor advice sites and – to stifle coverage of protests – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google have been darkened at times and we’ve chronicled the sorry state of affairs in that country. So the current assault on Wikipedia over a relatively trivial matter comes as no surprise, even as the quote seems prophetic as Russia still reels over even lower oil prices, stronger sanctions and attempts to quash unrest through greater repression.

The blockage of Wikipedia revolves around a small village’s objection to Wikipedia references to charas, a form of cannabis indigenous to India, Lebanon, Pakistan and Jamaica- far from this village, Chyorny Yar. A village prosecutor, despite there being no cannabis fields in the area or drug problem in the village, demanded that the Russian-language Wikipedia entry delete it and a local court concurred. Right-wing posturing seems popular today all over the world.'”On Monday, Russia’s Internet watchdog — Roskomnadzorr — asked service providers to block the Wikipedia page. Wikipedia, however, uses the https protocol for secure communication, which in turn means that providers have difficulty blocking individual articles. Given this constraint, Roskomnadzor declared that Russian providers would have to block the whole Internet encyclopedia to enforce the ban on the charas entry.

The whole of Wikipedia will be blocked for most Russian users once (the ban is) implemented”, Said Stanislav Kozlovsky, executive director of the Wikimedia foundation in Russia. According to him, because Russia lacks the expensive, sophisticated equipment to block specific pages, all of Wikipedia must go dark. This action is occurring despite Wikipedia making changes to its charas entry, citing only scientific studies and the health hazards of cannabis and reiterating the substance’s ban in Russia.

It is not the first time that Roskomnadzor has demanded that Wikipedia delete articles. Many Wikipedia pages on drugs and suicide have been blacklisted since 2012. All but four of them were eventually removed from the list, and Wikipedia has engaged in talks with authorities about the content of the banned entries. It has not deleted those pages. But it is the first time that Russian authorities have asked providers to block a Wikipedia page- this time without discussions with the outlet.

Wikipedia has tried constantly to contact Roskomnadzor to initiate a dialogue, but their attempts have been fruitless. ‘They prefer to communicate via statements on the Internet instead,” Kozlovsky lamented. And they have repeated their intent to block Wikipedia if the drug entry is not deleted.

As disconcerting as all this is, what is even more alarming is that they have had the authority to block websites with impunity and without a court order or judicial oversight since 2012. As a result, tens of thousands of Web pages have been blacklisted as they detail the scope of suicide, pornography and drugs which predominate in the paranoid system, not to mention legal and illegal protests. “We could have been blocked every day since 2012, and now it seems like this day has come,” Kozlovsky says of Wikipedia.

As the economic noose tightens around the Kremlin’s neck, expect more repressive retaliation as Putin, attempting to retain control, realizes that repression is his only saviour. For while the truth may set most people free, it certainly won’t for Russians as long as he is in power.


Stan Ward Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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