On the surface, it’s all about protecting Russian kids from internet pedophiles. In reality, the Kremlin’s new “Single Register” of banned websites, which goes into effect today, will wind up blocking all kinds of online political speech. And, thanks to the spread of new internet-monitoring technologies, the Register could well become a tool for spying on millions of Russians.
Signed into law by Vladimir Putin on July 28, the internet-filtering measure contains a single, innocuous-sounding paragraph that allows those compiling the Register to draw on court decisions relating to the banning of websites. The problem is, the courts have ruled to block more than child pornographers’ sites. The judges have also agreed to online bans on political extremists and opponents of the Putin regime.
The principle of internet censorship is not a new one to the Russian authorities. For five years, regional prosecutors have been busy implementing regional court decisions requiring providers to block access to banned sites. To date this has not been done systematically: Sites blocked in one region remained accessible in others. The Register removes this problem.
The new system is modeled on the one that is used to block extremist and terrorist bank accounts. The Roskomnadzor (the Agency for the Supervision of Information Technology, Communications and Mass Media) gathers not only court decisions to outlaw sites or pages, but also data submitted by three government agencies: the Interior Ministry, the Federal Antidrug Agency and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Public Welfare. The Agency is in charge of compiling and updating the Register, and also of instructing the host providers to remove the URLs. If no action by the provider follows, the internet service providers (ISPs) should block access to the site in 24 hours. The host providers must also ensure they are not in breach of current law by checking their content against the database of outlawed sites and URLs published in a special password-protected online version of the Register open only to webhosters and ISPs.
Most importantly, however, the new Roskomnadzor system introduces DPI (deep packet inspection) on a nationwide scale. Although DPI is not mentioned in the law, the Ministry of Communications — along with the biggest internet corporations active in Russia — concluded in August that the only way to implement the law was through deep packet inspection.
“At the end of August, under the chairmanship of Communications minister Nikolai Nikiforov, a working group was held, drawing representatives of Google, SUP Media (the owner of the Livejournal social network), and of all the other big hitters. They discussed how to ensure that the [filtering] mechanism — they used the concrete example of YouTube — how to block a specific video, without blocking YouTube as a whole. And they reached the conclusion that pleased them all,” Ilya Ponomarev, a member of the State Duma and an ardent supporter of the law, told us.
Are we are talking about DPI technology? we asked.
Most digital inspection tools only look at the “headers” on a packet of data –- where it’s going, and where it came from. DPI allows network providers to peer into the digital packets composing a message or transmission over a network. “You open the envelope, not just read the address on a letter,” said an engineer dealing with DPI. It allows ISPs not only to monitor the traffic, but to filter it, suppressing particular services or content. DPI has also elicited concern from leading privacy groups over how this highly intrusive technology will be used by governments.
“No Western democracy has yet implemented a dragnet black-box DPI surveillance system due to the crushing effect it would have on free speech and privacy,” said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International. “DPI allows the state to peer into everyone’s internet traffic and read, copy or even modify e-mails and webpages: We now know that such techniques were deployed in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. It can also compromise critical circumvention tools, tools that help citizens evade authoritarian internet controls in countries like Iran and China.”
“There are basically two functions in DPI — filtering and SORM,” added IBM East Europe Business Development Director Boris Poddubny, referring to the Russian government surveillance system for monitoring both internet traffic and phone calls. “There may be devices to copy traffic. DPI helps analyze it. And there will be a detailed log: what is downloaded by whom, and who looked for what on the internet.”