Reporters Without Borders

Danger of generalized online surveillance and censorship

Danger of generalized online surveillance and censorship

Published on Wednesday 30 March 2011.
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Reporters Without Borders is disturbed to learn that, according to Lenta.ru, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal supervisory agency for communications, information technology and mass media, has announced a contest for the design of software that it could use to monitor online media outlets for “extremist” content.

The deadline for submitting designs is 15 August and the deadline the agency has set itself for testing submissions is 15 December. Roskomnadzor says it is ready to spend half a million dollars on the software, that would check text, audio and video posted on online media websites. The content it is supposed to track down includes public calls to commit acts of terrorism, display of Nazi symbols or emblems, calls for the violent overthrow of constitutional order, violating the unity of Russia and inciting social, racial, national or religious strife.

Reporters Without Borders is worried about the creation of mechanisms for monitoring the Russian Internet and their potential consequences for online free expression. The organization fears that the authorities would abuse a content surveillance and censorship system that uses such vaguely defined concepts as “violating the unity of Russia” or “hidden inserts and other technical means and ways of distributing information that would act on people’s subconscious or have a harmful influence on their health.”

The contest could give Roskomnadzor the technical means for generalized monitoring of the Internet with a view to removing content. Roskomnadzor representative Mikhail Vorobyov said the aim was to implement a June 2010 Supreme Court decision requiring online media to edit or delete illegal content in response to a request from Roskomnadzor.

There are real grounds for concern that the software could be used to censor online media. This could happen if they post content containing accusations against government officials, post content about a banned organization without pointing out that this organization has been banned, post information about counter-terrorist operations if such information could harm these operations.

Russia has not as yet introduced systematic filtering of website content as other countries such as China have done. But its rulers have been using more subtle control methods aimed not at preventing the transmission of content but modifying it, often for propaganda purposes, and by pressuring Internet Service Providers. Regional filtering attempts in 2010 did not work and RuNet’s method of control considers above all of asking media to remove content. Content removal would become even more systematic under this new initiative.

Russia was on the list of “countries under surveillance” in the latest report on cyber-censorship that Reporters Without Borders released on 12 March.

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