News and notes
Chapter head speaks about the aftermath of Russian Wikipedia shutdown
Vladimir Medeyko gives the acceptance speech for the award of the Runet Prize in 2009 ("Science and education" category), founded and co-funded by the government communications agency FAPMC
to honour top Russian-language websites. Ironically, the Russian Wikipedia community, which has won the award three times, now finds itself at loggerheads with the government.
Key player ... Nikolai Nikiforov, Russian minister for information, appointed just eight weeks ago
The areas in which Russian is an official language (blue) and where it is widely spoken (green)
Two weeks ago we reported
that the Russian Wikipedia
had just begun a 24-hour blackout. The move—implemented after on-wiki consensus was reached during the preceding days—was in protest at a bill
before the Russian parliament
that proposed mechanisms to block IP addresses
and DNS records
, with the potential to allow extra-judicial censorship of the internet in Russia; ultimately, this could include the closure of access to the Russian Wikipedia.
The Russian community's action was the third protest of its kind, after the SOPA/PIPA shutdown on the English Wikipedia last January and the Italian Wikipedia blackout last October over a new privacy bill. The English-language shutdown played a major role in the dumping of the Congressional proposal, and while the Russian and Italian bills still passed, the community-led protests in those two countries appear to have exerted influence in making them less objectionable to the movement's goals of achieving internet freedom.
The Wikimedia Foundation's head of communications, Jay Walsh, posted a message of support to the volunteers of the Russian Wikipedia: "... many in the Wikimedia movement recognize that this legislation is similar to other bills being proposed or passed around the world that could hinder free speech and produce situations where governments could censor information. Non-censorship and freedom of speech are core values of the Wikimedia movement and the Wikimedia Foundation."
Among the questions now are how effective the blackout was and where we go from here in terms of internet freedom in one of the world's biggest and most influential countries. The head of Wikimedia Russia, Vladimir Medeyko, told the Signpost that despite the passage of the law, the blackout had gained wide publicity. "It was reported in newspapers and on all major domestic Russian TV channels, as well as on the Russian CNN channel, Ukrainian TV news, and the Mir company, which also broadcasts in Kazakhstan. Overall, they took a fairly even-handed angle in their reporting."
But Medeyko anticipates no more blackouts in Russia: "I think it would look too political. One action is fine—it's effective. But if we did it again, in the Russian political culture it would be laughed at as an overtly political ploy."
There are two immediate aftermaths, he says: first, some changes were made in the wording of the bill that do slightly reduce the likelihood of misuse; and second, senior government officials gave Wikimedians assurances that the law will not be used to suppress freedom of speech on the internet, and agreed to make efforts to improve the situation by further amending bills or regulations. Further amendments may be scheduled for November and will be considered by two government committees before then—one instigated by Elena Mizulina, a member of the Duma and one of the main authors and proponents of the amendment; and one by Nikolai Nikiforov, the Russian minister for information who, like all ministers, reports to president Putin through prime minister Medvedev, and is not a member of the Duma.
The Russian Wikipedia community has been invited to make submissions to both committees. Medeyko told us, "I caught up with Mizulina immediately after the voting for the bill, during which she assurred us we would have input into the process. Mizulina is the head of the Duma's committee on family, women, and children—one of the overt concerns of the bill was to act against child pornography on the internet. "Both Nikiforov and Mizulina use the Russian Wikipedia as far as I know," he says, "but are unlikely to have edited it."
On a scale from 1 (no freedom) to 10 (complete freedom), Medeyko rates internet freedom in Russia around 5, down from 6 before the amendments. Given this, we asked what he believes are the minimum, politically realistic changes to the law that would give the country acceptable internet freedom. "There should be a clear definition of the reasons that would justify shutting down a site; there should be a feasible procedure to quickly restore a site after fair and open judicial review; and we need independent and just courts—but the last requirement may involve complex issues that are difficult to resolve in the short term." The Russian community will be discussing their input on-wiki, which will be formally put to the government committees by the chapter.
How powerful is the bureaucracy compared with the politicians themselves? Do the bureaucrats make the real decisions? Medeyko says "I think it's a mix. The policians tended to express pro-Wikipedia, pro-internet opinion as a reaction to the blackout, since it's not in their interests to alienate online users in Russia. This is a good start in our negotiations with the bureaucrats."
Medeyko's overall take is optimistic. "The chapter hopes that this phase in our relationship with the government will be productive and will reinforce both freedom on the Russian-language internet and the independence of Wikimedia projects in our language."
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