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Russia banned Wikipedia because it couldn’t censor pages

Government agency blocked website over a drug-related entry, but the blackout was short-lived

Marc Veraart / Flickr

This week, the Russian government briefly blocked access to Wikipedia over a page about charas, a form of cannabis. Roskomnadzor, the country's communications watchdog, ordered Wikipedia to delete the page last week, saying it contained information on how to prepare and use charas, but the site refused.

Wikipedia was inaccessible for many users in Russia on Monday, though the block was short-lived. A few hours later, Roskomnadzor removed Wikipedia from its official list of banned sites, saying that the page on charas had been edited to its approval. A controversial Russian law makes it illegal to publish online content about drug use, but experts say the government's Wikipedia crackdown is about more than just hashish.

"Like two boxers circling each other in a ring."

"I think they're trying to show they can ban whatever they want, whenever they want," says Nikolay Kononov, editor-in-chief of the digital business magazine SecretMag.ru, who has publicly criticized Russia's social media policy. "It's a show of intimidation, like two boxers circling each other in a ring."

Russia has long exerted tight control over the internet, blocking opposition sites and censoring social media, and those efforts have intensified following the crisis in Ukraine. But because Wikipedia uses the HTTPS protocol, it's difficult for censors to pick on individual pages within the larger site. The protocol encrypts communications between Wikipedia and its visitors, so Russian intelligence services can't see which pages a visitor is looking at or block one page while letting others through. It's the same problem Russia faced earlier this month, when it briefly blocked Reddit — which also uses HTTPS — over a single thread about growing psychedelic mushrooms.

"One of the arguments that advocates have made in favor of HTTPS is that it changes the calculus around censoring individual pages," says Parker Higgins, director of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has supported HTTPS as a way to combat government censorship. HTTPS encryption, Higgins adds, forces governments into an "all or nothing" choice when it comes to censorship. In the case of Wikipedia, Russia chose the "all" option, but soon relented and chose not to ban the site permanently, which Higgins sees as an encouraging sign.

"The first real-world tests."

"These are kind of the first real-world tests," he says, referring to the recent Russian targeting, as well as China's attack on GitHub earlier this year. "By making these decisions more all or nothing, even the governments we tend to disagree with politically will realize that nothing isn't really an option."

Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and expert on the Russian internet, tells The Guardian that Russia's web surveillance system, known as SORM, is incapable of penetrating HTTPS communications. He speculates that Roskomnadzor's crackdown on Wikipedia may be part of an attempt to force the site away from the protocol.

But Stanislav Kozlovskiy, executive director of Wikimedia RU, tells The Washington Post that it has no intention of changing its protocol. Wikipedia has clashed with Russian authorities in the past, most notably in 2012, when it shut down in protest of a law that gave the Kremlin greater control over the web. "We are not going to stop using the HTTPS protocol to make it easier for Roskomnadzor to censor Wikipedia," Kozlovskiy told the paper this week, adding that many ISPs in Russia lacked the equipment needed to censor individual pages.

"Perennial downfall."

In an email statement, the Wikimedia Foundation reaffirmed its commitment to not interfering with its content, stressing that changes to the page on charas were made by Wikipedia's community of editors, and that it did not urge them to do so. "The Wikimedia Foundation does not censor Wikipedia or the other Wikimedia projects," the statement reads. "We support the global community of editors in their efforts to make free knowledge available to everyone."

Russia's dispute with Wikipedia may be a prelude to a larger battle over online privacy. Next month, a law will go into effect that requires all internet companies to store data on Russian users within the country's borders. Jeff Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees the law as a way for the Kremlin to strengthen its surveillance capabilities and "engage in targeted repression." And if web companies cede to the government's demands, there's little that HTTPS encryption could do to protect user data.

"This is kind of the perennial downfall of strong encryption," Higgins says. "It can be technically very secure, but if the government can come into your office and say ‘Okay, you have to give us the names of everyone who's reading this,' then it doesn't matter that much how secure your system is."