By Innokenty Grekov
I'm sitting in Moscow trying to figure out how to get to the Novoslobodkaya metro station to meet a friend for coffee. I Google the station's name, and as often happens, Wikipedia emerges atop of the query list, but clicking on the link leads to nothing.
Wikipedia is on strike today to protest against Russia's looming assault on internet freedom.
Today, Russia's parliament is debating amendments to the existing law on information that, if passed, would create a black list for internet websites containing "banned content." According to RIA Novosti, the bill enjoys cross-party support, while civil society groups and internet providers are united in opposition.
"Imagine a world without free knowledge," say Wikipedia's curators in the short appeal that replaced their usual homepage today. "The Wikipedia community is protesting against censorship that threatens free knowledge available to all people."
It's not the first time the Wikipedia community has gone on strike. This past January, the site joined the massive internet blackout that pushed the U.S. Congress to reconsider antipiracy legislation that could have similarly led to censorship of web content. As governments struggle to address online security, hate speech, and child safety, they must be mindful of how these concerns can also serve as a convenient pretext for censorship or surveillance in a way that violates the rights and privacy of users and threatens the free flow of information.
Consider the context in Russia: this new bill on the internet is a part of a troika that threaten democracy and human rights. First, the State Duma dramatically increased fines for participants in "illegal demonstrations" in a country in which it is often difficult to obtain a permit (just ask Moscow's LGBT groups that were handed a one hundred-year ban on pride parades in the capital). Second, the parliament approved new strict regulations on nongovernmental NGOs receiving foreign funding, requiring many to register as "foreign agents" and be subjected to additional regulatory oversight. And now this bill will create a black list of internet websites.
These laws are easy to abuse because they lack concrete definitions. For example, the foreign NGO bill does not define what "political activity" means and yet requires all politically active groups to wear the foreign agent/spy label. Similarly, the existing and massively misused law on extremism lacks a definition of extremism and is regularly used to target religious believers, civic dissenters, and artists.
What Wikipedia is fighting against--the black list--is just one way that Russia fights "extremist materials." The government targets dissenters by placing publications or media files on the federal list of banned extremist materials, which now stands at more than 1,200 entries. The use or distribution of these texts, images, movies, or songs can lead to warnings, fines, and suspended sentences. The list is often criticized as purposeless and ineffectual, yet it continues to grow as more courts rule against authors as wide ranging as Adolf Hitler and Said Nursi. You can imagine what a black list of unacceptable internet websites might look like.
This legislative attack on the ability of Russians to express opinions or assemble freely will likely go through as there are few roadblocks in the Parliament. The Russian people once again have to decide if the seeming economic stability of Putin's regime is more important to them than a chance at a country that realizes its full economic potential while respecting the fundamental freedoms of its citizens. In the meantime, let's hope that Facebook, Twitter, or even humanrightsfirst.org don't make it onto the black list.