Hashish and Russia’s big HTTPS problem

FIFTH COLUMN

Russian authorities briefly banned the entire Wikipedia site over a page relating to drug use, which the site had refused to edit or delete.

The ban was quickly lifted, before it had gone into effect for most Russian internet users, but not before the news created a wave of panic in the country’s online community. There is increasing concern in Russia about a crackdown on internet freedom.

A court in a small town in southern Russia ordered that a Wikipedia page about charas, an Indian form of hashish, be banned as it contained harmful information. Because Wikipedia uses secure HTTPS (hypertext transfer protocol secure) protocol, some internet providers would have to ban the entire website. This past week, some Moscow internet users found the Russian-language Wikipedia banned entirely, though for others it was still working, with a message from the website explaining how to circumvent a ban if it did come into effect.

Online watchdog Roskomnadzor said in a statement the decision to rescind the banning order came because the forbidden information about charas had been redacted. Wikipedia editors said the page remained the same.

“This is an important case because it’s part of the general offensive against HTTPS. Roskomnadzor and the FSB [security services] don’t know what to do with it,” said Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and author of Red Web, a book about the Russian internet. Soldatov said Sorm, the system Russia uses for internet surveillance, does not work with the more secure HTTPS protocol, also used by sites such as Facebook and Gmail.

On September 1 a new rule came into effect: it requires internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter to store the data of all Russian users on-shore. Roskomnadzor has said it will not check compliance of major sites such as Facebook until next year, but it is part of a drive to put pressure on the companies to keep servers in Russia, where data would be accessible by Russian authorities.

Soldatov speculated the move against Wikipedia could be part of another strategy: by threatening the site with bans over single pages, the site could be forced off HTTPS to ensure the whole site is not affected when only one page is banned.

Russian authorities have become increasingly suspicious of the subversive powers of the internet in the three years since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president in 2012. Protests in the run-up to his inauguration were largely organised on social media, and in a few months of his return to office he had signed a bill providing a list of banned sites.

Earlier this year, Russia, China and a number of central Asian dictatorships submitted a proposal to the United Nations, clearly aimed at the United States, calling for countries not to use the internet “to interfere in the internal affairs of other states or with the aim of undermining their political, economic and social stability”. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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