Russia tightens control of the internet

Yury Sorochkin describes the implications of the Russian government’s decision to ban, the country’s most popular torrent tracker.

In November 2015, a Moscow city court ruled that all Russian internet service providers (ISPs) have to block the country’s most popular torrent tracker, According to the site’s own statistics, it has almost 15 million accounts and 1.6 million torrents, almost all of which are available for download. RuTracker was one of the first torrent trackers in the country; it has operated since 2004, when unlimited broadband became widely available in Russia.

According to the court’s ruling, RuTracker was to be blocked “forever”, meaning this action cannot be reversed under any circumstances (unless the site’s appeal is successful). The whole site, not only pages with objectionable content, will be blocked. The case was brought by the EKSMO Publishing house, which claimed that RuTracker had refused to delete torrents of several books, including ones written by Darya Dontsova and Andrey Gromov.

However, although EKSMO’s complaint was the one that sealed the fate of the tracker, it was merely the last drop in the bucket. Earlier copyright infringement complaints were filed, unsurprisingly, by Sony, Universal, Warner and EMI. These global corporations are desperately trying to keep the small share they still retain in the rapidly shrinking Russian market.

RuTracker had to delete around 320,000 torrents to comply with the labels’ wishes. After both sides failed to settle in October, RuTracker held a vote among its users, who had to choose between deleting all torrents in question or facing the government ban. 67 per cent of the users voted for a full-scale conflict with the copyright holders.

The site was still accessible as of January 2016, mostly due to the efforts of RosKomSvoboda (RuBlackList.NET), an NGO which filed an appeal against the Moscow city court’s ruling and promised to help to those willing to file individual appeals. In the meanwhile, RuTracker held an emergency training exercise for its users. For 24 hours the site was blocked for Russian users in order to see how many of them would be be able to follow instructions for circumventing the ban that were provided by RuTracker. This tactic proved to be successful, as traffic decreased by a mere 10 per cent.

RuTracker, the publishing industry and free speech

The reader may wonder what all of this has to do with free speech. File sharing services have been at war with music labels, publishing houses, filmmakers and industry associations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) since ancient times – remember “Napster”? There has been no shortage of appeals to freedom of information from their side. The RuTracker case is different from many others, including those of the Demonoid and the Pirate Bay.

Until 2013 the Russian publishing market was dominated by two major players: EKSMO and AST. However, the latter was badly hit by the economic crisis of 2008 and was subsequently investigated by the Russian Federal Tax Police Service until EKSMО bought it in December 2013. Despite the existence of smaller specialised publishing houses, EKSMO is very close to monopoly in fiction and popular non-fiction. Its market share significantly exceeds that of all other players. Moreover, since the acquisition of AST EKSMO controls the distribution infrastructure, which is highly significant in a country as large as Russia. Moreover, postal services are totally unreliable, which creates a barely traversable barrier for online trade.

In other words, for those who do not live in Moscow, St. Petersburg or Nizhny Novgorod, the closest bookstore selling small press is probably 500 kilometres away. Most likely, bookstores in any other city feature tons of pulp fiction, a couple dozen cookbooks and loads of “Americans-never-landed on-the-moon” and “real-story-of-how-Stalin-was-poisoned-by-the-Jews” titles.

So the barriers of entry into the distribution networks are far too high for small presses. So what about e-books then? Unfortunately, operational costs (mostly credit card payment services provided by banks), a lack of hardware and DRM standards similar to those used by Nook and Kindle – and once again the fact that EKSMO owns the most successful Russian e-book shop – make it rather difficult for small presses to sell electronic books. Some of them just do not bother: the country’s best publishing house, which specialises in social sciences, humanities, intellectual fiction and even contemporary poetry, systematically ignored the very existence of the e-book market for years. However, none of the small publishing enterprises tried to sue institutions, providing those less fortunate, be it in terms of income or geography, with access to literature, films and music not popular enough to be distributed outside the two or three major urban centres. EKSMO, however, had no problem with lawsuits.

Implications for free speech

Once again: what does all this have to do with freedom of speech? Well, everything. The Russian state controls people’s minds in various ways. It uses methods that are significantly more efficient than those of the past. In fact, the power of television in contemporary Russia is so overwhelming that there is absolutely no need to cut people off from alternative sources of information: mostly they do not have a shred of interest in those anyway. But old habits die hard. Both publishers and bookstores still enjoy relative freedom in Russia – but this is declining. In 2015, school and college libraries in the Yekaterinburg region were ordered by the local department of education to remove books by the British historians Antony Beevor and John Keegan. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, a book by another respected historian, Timothy Snyder, was recently published in Russian – by the Kievan publishing house Dulibi. It is unavailable through Russian bookstores, but can be legally downloaded from its official site in Ukraine as well as from a number of sites in Russia, which are now under attack for copyright infringements. Some people involved in the Russian publishing business state off the record that the few attempts that were made to publish Airport by an LA Times correspondent, a book on one of the episodes of Russian-Ukrainian war, have failed due to either straightforward censorship or self-censorship by senior management. At the same time, Airporport is readily available in Russian for free from a number of illegal sites, including torrent trackers.

The decision to block RuTracker forever came into legal force on 22 January 2016. On 25 January 2016, ISPs all over the country cut access to the site for all users from the Russian Federation. In fact, blocking on such a large scale was hardly perfect. This was proved by a ridiculous incident involving Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who discovered ( that RuTracker was still accessible from his iPad at a session of the government council on the film industry in mid-February 2016. Nevertheless, the ban was in force by March 2016 and Alexander Zharov, the head of Rosomnadzor (the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technology and Communications, which is responsible for blocking almost 5,000 sites in three years, according to the NGO RosKomSvoboda), predicted RuTracker’s “full decline” within a few months.

However, according to Bloomberg, the number of visitors to RuTracker fell by less than 15 per cent during the first week after the ban’s imposition. Later data from independent Russian researchers suggest a decline even less significant, of around 10 per cent. In March 2016, it seems like the majority of Russian users turned quite seamlessly to using different technologies to bypass the government-imposed ban on RuTracker. In particular, plug-ins were developed for popular browsers, with which users can continue to use the site as usual. Significantly, this situation also implies that opposition sites, including several major ones banned in 2014 (Grani.Ru, Kasparov.Ru, Daily Magazine and others) were also easily accessible for those determined to visit them.

On 12 February 2016 a Roskomnadzor working group approved a bill introducing administrative liability for propagating means to bypass the blocking of websites. According to the proposed legislation, calls for the use of technical means and methods to bypass the blocks will “entail the imposition of an administrative fine” of between £100 and £500 for individual citizens; £500 to £1000 for officials; and £1000 – £3000 for registered companies (including media companies). The bill was set to be introduced to the the Russian parliament, the State Duma, in the autumn of 2016.

The ongoing attack on torrent trackers and online “book depositaries” should not be considered as part of routine efforts by commercial content producers to set limits on the internet piracy, but rather as part of the Russian government’s efforts to control all information flows, including those in the internet.

Yury Sorochkin is a graduate student in the Modern and Medieval Languages Department at the University of Oxford.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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