27 November 2023

15,000 websites — a new “record” for wartime censorship

НАСТОЯЩИЙ МАТЕРИАЛ (ИНФОРМАЦИЯ) ПРОИЗВЕДЕН И (ИЛИ) РАСПРОСТРАНЕН ИНОСТРАННЫМ АГЕНТОМ «РОСКОМСВОБОДА» ЛИБО КАСАЕТСЯ ДЕЯТЕЛЬНОСТИ ИНОСТРАННОГО АГЕНТА «РОСКОМСВОБОДА». 18+
This figure includes both small media outlets and internationally renowned resources. Crucially, the wartime censorship, which began in February 2022, has affected not only those who write about the “special military operation” (“SMO”) from a stance which differs to the official Russian narrative, but also pirating sites, IT portals, online stores, personal blogs run by well-known individuals and many other Internet resources.
Roskomsvoboda / Ivan Samkov – Pexels / Canva

The number of sites and links subjected to wartime censorship has exceeded 15,000. These are the findings of the monitoring of the centralized internet blacklist (known as the “Unified Register”) conducted by Roskomsvoboda.

 

Important clarification!

The official figures provided by Roskomnadzor (RKN) about blocked “fakes” are very different to those that we observe in the Unified Register. According to their data for May 2023, more than 172,000 sites with “fakes about the SMO” were blocked.

The fact is that not all Internet resources are blocked by telecom operators. Many websites and public pages try to promptly delete prohibited information themselves in order to avoid being completely blocked.

In addition, many of the Prosecutor General’s Office decisions, which in this case are implemented by the RKN, concern social networks, in particular VKontakte. The social network blocks comments, groups and even individual users as soon as it receives notification from Roskomnadzor. Like, for example, here.These are all included in RKN’s statistics. 

Websites hosted inside Russia are also often blocked by the hosts themselves, upon RKN’s request.

Therefore, there is nothing surprising in such a discrepancy in the data. 15,000 is only a fraction of the informational materials which are blocked in Russia on the grounds of wartime censorship, but it’s thanks to their inclusion in the RKN register that we can track them.  

 

As of February 24, 2022, we created a separate category to monitor the online resources blocked due to wartime censorship and noticed that sometimes dozens or even hundreds of sites were blocked daily. The primary initiator of the censorship was the Prosecutor General’s Office, and occasionally the local courts. The latter usually blocked individual links, while the supervisory agency mostly banned entire sites, often even by “mask” (*), i.e. with all domains and subdomains.

The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) could block up to several thousand websites based on a single decision. For example, decision №27-31-2020/Ид2145-22 has had a particularly widespread impact. As a result of its enforcement on February 24, 2022, sites and links continued to be added to the Unified Register, with their number at some point exceeding 6,000.

It’s quite possible that this figure is even higher, given that in November 2022 the PGO suddenly disappeared from the Unified Register and was replaced with the category “Unspecified Government Agency”. This “unspecified” agency began to perform a role which was confusingly  similar to that of the Prosecutor General. Of course, we can only speculate but many signs point to this in fact being the Prosecutor General’s Office, with those sites added following 24.02.2022 being very similar in their focus, content and other indicators to those that were previously blocked by the aforementioned decision №27-31-2020/Ид2145-22 – for example, it was this decision which led to the hunting down of pirating sites, even though copyright infringement is within the jurisdiction of the Moscow City Court.  

In the case of “piracy”, the issue is likely relevant due to many of these sites containing advertising banners or individual posts which criticize the “special operation”. They’re not alone, other Internet portals that are not related to politics were also blocked, due to posts which promoted assistance to Ukraine or even their armed forces (AFU). Occasionally, the presence of a small blue and yellow banner is enough for the censorship agency to ban a site in Russia.

In our very first digest, when there were 1,500 blockings, we noted that access restrictions to a wide range of Internet resources were enforced not only after the adoption of the relevant legislation, but almost immediately following the beginning of the Russian army’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.

 Subsequently, we published further digests when the number of blocked sites reached:

3000;

5000;

7000 (this point marked 6 months since wartime censorship was introduced);

9300 (when we decide to disclose that the named initiator of the blockings had suddenly changed);

10000.

In general, wartime censorship is not controlled by civil society, it’s non-transparent and its legislative basis is very arbitrary.

 

The first victims of wartime censorship were:

- Independent Russian media outlets (Paper, DOXA Magazine, TV2, Mediazona, 7x7-Horizontal Russia, Meduza, Holod, Kavkazsky Uzel, Pskovskaya Gubernia, Novaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy etc.);

- Websites of public, human rights and other organizations, as well as activists and opposition politicians (Human Rights Watch, OVD-Info, Greenhouse for Social Technologies, Activatica, the Crimean Tatar Resource Center’s website, blogs by Evgeny Domozhirov and Dmitry Kolezev, journalist Alexander Nevzorov’s website, etc.);

- Many Ukrainian online resources (UNIAN, Ukrainska Pravda, 5 Kanal, various government websites, volunteer projects, civic groups, political parties);

- foreign media and government sites (BBC, The Daily Telegraph, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s projects, DW, Delfi, Bild, Global News, Clarín, Ilta-Sanomat, CIA, FBI and U.S Department of State websites);

- non-political entertainment sites, pirating portals, online stores, recruiting services, stock photo sites (Mult.ru, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, chess.com, WikiArt, ParkRun, Jooble, Depositphotos, JoyReactor and many others);

- foreign social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (the latter two are owned by Meta, which was recognized as an “extremist organization” in March 2022).

After the main sites have been blocked, the supervisory agency, also acting extrajudicially, sends links to the mirrors of the above-mentioned sites to the Unified Register. Sometimes, a mirror or a new domain manages to remain unblocked for only a few days.

More than 3,000 “mirror” links and sites of blocked media outlets were re-entered into the Register, when they posted information on cloudfront.net. A while later, the same occurred with appspot.com.

Some of the aforementioned organizations were subsequently deemed “undesirable”, such as Novaya Gazeta and Meduza.

 

Supervisory authorities began paying particular attention to various sites which spoke out against the “special operation”, speculated about possible losses in the Russian army, and spread propaganda about the surrender of the Russian Armed Forces’ servicemen into Ukrainian captivity. The most notable is the project I Want to Live (in Russian: Я Хочу Жить) which, after each new blocking, would promptly return under a new domain before getting swiftly re-blocked by the “unspecified government agency” (allegedly the Prosecutor General’s Office), and then once again re-appearing under a new address.

Anticenzura (aka AntiVatnik, Vatnikov.Net and Soprotivlenie2) is another so-called “respawning” site, only it has a much longer history of evading the final ban. Since around 2017, the project has been blocked by a great variety of agencies and courts due to its work reprinting texts banned in Russia for being “extremist”, “narcotic” and, since 2022, “anti-special operational”. Trolling the authorities, it constantly changes domains, names, and regularly creates new mirrors, all to avoid state blocking. After the enactment of the law banning “LGBT propaganda and gender reassignment”, the project became known as Gender reassignment and gay sex is cool. Not to mention, their materials dedicated to the topic of the “special military operation”, are constantly being entered into the blacklist Register. Most frequently, these mirrors are taken from duckdns.org, found under a variety of amusing names.

For an unknown reason, one of the main resources most disliked by the authorities is the pirating site hdrezka, which has accumulated more than 250 domains in the Registry.

 

Recent examples of this hunt for already blocked Internet resources, include:

-        Project Ekho, created by former journalists of the Ekho Moskvy radio station after its liquidation;

-        The student magazine Groza;

-        The publication Vesma Today.

 

Blocking podcasts is also a fairly common occurrence:

-        Audio content produced by Holod magazine was first included in the Register in July 2022;

-        In October last year, Soundcloud became one of the first major services to be blocked, with podcasts from Radio Liberty;

-        In March 2023, Podtail fell into disfavor due to the works of Alexander Nevzorov, Maxim Katz and Radio Liberty;

-        Content produced by podcastaddict.com was banned in June 2023;

-        The Ukrainian news project Novoe Vremya also didn’t escape the attention of the “unspecified government agency” in June 2023;

-        In September, Radio Sakharov’s website, which contains “seditious” podcasts, was blocked. The station itself is associated with the Sakharov Foundation, which was recognized as an “undesirable organization”. It’s not clear, however, whether wartime censorship is the cause here;

-        Also in September, Svodka Ukraine was added to the Register via the platform podmailer.com;

-        Journalist Olga Mikitas’ podcast, whose content has previously been blocked under wartime censorship, was also banned in October this year;

This list doesn’t include Russian services which typically prefer to delete prohibited audio materials before they can be added to the Register.

 

It cannot be said that wartime censorship has completely disappeared since the beginning of this year, (especially given that we recorded 10,000 sites and links being blocked on its grounds), but the speed at which Internet resources are added to the Register has certainly decreased. Furthermore, the number of major new media outlets being added, especially those that are foreign, as well as sites that are detached from political affairs, has considerably fallen. In this sense, 2022 was much more oppressive and “extravagant” in terms of censorship activity and the selection of entities condemned to the ban.

Nevertheless, we continue to observe cases of peculiar blockings to this day:

-        Lviv Handmade Chocolate;

-        The All-Ukrainian National Cheerleading Association;

-        American software company Zendesk;

-        Carnegie Endowment for International Peace;

-        Erotic portal Tits Guru;

-        Website of Ukrainian home-made convenience food manufacturer, Galya Balyvana;

-        A reprint of an interview with Boris Barsky, one the leading members of the Masks comedy troupe;

-        Stamp collector’s store, Peterstamps;

-        Recipe for cooking lentils from Ukrainian chef, Ievgen Klopotenko;

-        Website of one of Ukraine’s most successful eSports teams, NAVI;

This year, the following media outlets were blocked for articles about the “special operation”:

-        Kazakhstan’s Arbat.Media;

-        Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat;

-        Independent Russian outlet The Bell.

TV Rain was declared an “undesirable organization”. A year prior, it came under wartime censorship.

 

We will continue to monitor the situation and tell you about any new blockings through our social media, as well as in the final digests on our website.

 

Original in Russian

Translation by Sasha Molotkova

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On December 23, 2022, the Ministry of Justice included Roskomsvoboda in the register of unregistered public associations performing the functions of a foreign agent. We disagree with this decision and are appealing it in court.