Russia’s online censorship machine is no longer running smoothly

June 24, 2020, 2:12 PM UTC
People take part in a rally for 'free Internet' and in support of the Telegram Messenger in Akademika Sakharova Avenue. On April 13, 2018, Moscow's Tagansky District Court ruled to block Telegram in Russia.
People take part in a rally for 'free Internet' and in support of the Telegram Messenger in Akademika Sakharova Avenue. On April 13, 2018, Moscow's Tagansky District Court ruled to block Telegram in Russia. Mikhail Tereshchenko—TASS/Getty Images
Mikhail Tereshchenko—TASS/Getty Images

Not long ago, it looked as if the Kremlin’s control of the Russian Internet would just get tighter and tighter. But as events of recent days have shown, the country’s online censorship regime may be faltering.

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) dealt a blow to Russia’s extensive website-blocking regime by ruling, in four separate cases, that the blocking measures were excessive and violated the right to free expression. And just days before, Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor ended its largely ineffective two-year blockade of the messaging and microblogging app Telegram.

The ECHR polices the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been agreed among the 47 member states of the Council of Europe—including not only those in the EU, but also Russia, Turkey, and several non-EU Eastern European countries. When it rules that a country’s legal system has violated someone’s rights, the court tells the country to fix the problem that caused that violation. However, enforcement is often lacking.

Russia’s online censorship targets a range of content, including some that is banned across much of the world—notably child sexual abuse material—but also material that describes drug use or suicide methods in detail. It also cracks down on material it considers extremist and routinely goes after websites that it rules run afoul of the country’s so-called “gay propaganda law.” Roskomnadzor enforces the censorship by giving Internet service providers an ever-expanding list of websites they must block their customers from accessing.

One of the cases leading to this week’s ruling was brought about by former chess champion and current Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, whose website was blocked by Roskomnadzor in 2014 on the grounds of promoting mass disorder or “extremist speech.”

Going overboard

The ECHR said Roskomnadzor had gone overboard by forcing Internet service providers to block Kasparov’s entire site, rather than specifying pages that broke the law, so the site’s administrators could remove them or challenge the decision. It likened the blocking of the whole site to banning a newspaper or TV station, without “any legitimate aim.”

Another case involved a site that had been blocked because it showed people how to bypass Russian Internet censorship mechanisms. 

“The Court found that suppressing information about technology for accessing information online because it could incidentally aid access to extremist material was no different from trying to restrict access to printers and photocopiers because they could be used for reproducing such material,” it said. “In the absence of a narrowly defined and specific legal basis, the Court found that such a sweeping measure was arbitrary.”

Kasparov tweeted Tuesday that he was glad the court had decided in his favor, but he’d rather see the Council of Europe expel Russia.

Fortune has asked Roskomnadzor multiple times whether its site-blocking tactics will change in response to the ruling, but has received no response at the time of writing.

According to the U.K.-based free-expression NGO Article 19, the ruling’s timing is useful, given that the EU is currently considering stiffer regulation of online speech.

“The Court’s judgment is a decisive victory for freedom of expression online in Russia, and will set an important precedent on the safeguards against website blocking powers,” said senior director of law and policy Barbora Bukovska in a statement. “As EU discussions continue on the Digital Services Act and other issues such as filtering, the Court’s judgment provides an important reminder of the minimum safeguards that the law should provide when using blocking technology.”

Collateral damage

Another one of the cases decided Tuesday by the ECHR involved a site—Electronic Publishing News—that was blocked in 2012 not because it itself broke any law, but because it shared an Internet (IP) address with another website that did break Russia’s law against promoting drug use. (The same law once led to Wikipedia’s brief blockage in Russia.)

This overblocking is a recurring theme in Russian online censorship—and one that notably popped up at the start of the Telegram block in 2018.

Roskomnadzor tried to block Telegram because it refused to give the security services encryption keys that would allow the monitoring of private conversations. In order to dodge the blockade, Telegram started hosting its service on servers with IP addresses different from those listed on the blocking order.

As Telegram hopped from server to server, the censorship agency responded by trying to block every IP address it could associate with the app. It ended up blocking millions of IP addresses, accidentally knocking out Amazon’s and Google’s cloud services in Russia, along with the websites of universities and national media.

Despite the best efforts of erstwhile Roskomnadzor head Aleksandr Zharov, Telegram didn’t just survive; its Russian user numbers doubled to 30 million over the course of the attempted blockade, and senior Kremlin officials continue to use it. Late last week, Roskomnadzor—under new leadership since March—announced that it was lifting the Telegram ban.

The regulator suggested the change was the result of Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov’s “readiness…to counter terrorism and extremism.” Indeed, Durov said back in late 2018 that he was willing to provide terrorist suspects’ IP addresses and phone numbers if presented with a court order. However, Telegram reportedly still has not handed over those encryption keys or secret messages.

“To characterize the ban as a case study of failed Internet censorship is to put it lightly,” wrote Foreign Policy Centre research fellow Lincoln Pigman in a Monday postmortem. “Its resort to shock and awe saw millions of IP addresses blacklisted in the weeks following Telegram’s proscription. Yet Roskomnadzor succeeded only in causing sporadic outages while inflicting significant collateral damage.”

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