The Russian Wikipedia has been the target of official government ire and censorship previously. The latest incident originated in the small village of Chyorny Yar, where on June 26 a prosecutor obtained a court order demanding the deletion of that Wikipedia's article on charas, which the English Wikipedia defines as "a hashish form of cannabis ... made from the resin of the cannabis plant." In Russia, telecommunications and official censorship are overseen by Roskomnadzor, whose duties include censoring pages regarding the use and production of illegal drugs. Roskomnadzor determined that the page on charas should be removed by August 21 or the Russian Wikipedia would be blocked in that country. According to Sputnik, a government-owned news service, a Roskomnadzor official told the newspaper Izvestia:
|Roskomnadzor understands the importance of Wikipedia for society. But it goes like this: today it 'academically' writes about drugs, tomorrow 'academically' about forms of suicide, and the day after tomorrow publishes any kind of banned content, but with 'academic' sources.
Both sides complained about a lack of communication. Executive Director of Wikimedia Russia, Stanislav Kozlovskiy, told the Washington Post that in the past there was "dialogue" with government regulators concerning problems, but not in this case: "We tried to call them but were told that the press officer is on vacation and no one else is authorized to talk to us. They preferred to communicate via statements on the Internet instead.” According to Sputnik, Roskomnadzor head Vadim Ampelonskiy told Izvestia they had also attempted contact. "We were unpleasantly surprised when ... Kozlovskiy, instead of implementing the law, began a large-scale media campaign." The media campaign resulted in a large spike in traffic to the charas article (see figure right).
The entire encyclopedia would have to be blocked because of the recent implementation by the Wikimedia Foundation of the HTTPS protocol on all Wikimedia projects (see previous Signpost coverage). Kozlovskiy told the Post that Russian internet providers do not have the "expensive equipment" needed to block individual pages on sites using HTTPS. Parker Higgins of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told The Verge that "One of the arguments that advocates have made in favor of HTTPS is that it changes the calculus around censoring individual pages." He said that HTTPS requires that governments engaging in censorship make an "all or nothing" decision about whether to block an entire site, or to not engage in censorship at all.
The Verge quoted two Russian journalists about the possible reasons behind the block. Nikolay Kononov, editor-in-chief of SecretMag.ru, said "I think they're trying to show they can ban whatever they want, whenever they want. It's a show of intimidation, like two boxers circling each other in a ring." Investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov suggested that it may be part of an attempt to force the encyclopedia to abandon HTTPS, which he noted is impenetrable by SORM, the Russian internet surveillance system. If so, Wikimedians are unbowed. Kozlovskiy told the Post that “We are not going to stop using the https protocol to make it easier for Roskomnadzor to censor Wikipedia.”
Global Voices Online reported that Russian Wikipedians debated on how to respond, with suggestions ranging from "complete compliance ... to complete defiance". The article on charas was not deleted, but it was moved to charas (drug substance) and the original article title became a disambiguation page which included links to a number of other articles, including an Asian river and a grape. Because the court order specified a specific URL, Global Voices Online speculated that Russian Wikipedia editors might have "outsmart[ed]" Roskomnadzor.
The Russian Wikipedia was blocked on August 24, but the block was only in place very briefly, and some internet providers had not instituted the block yet. Sputnik reported that Ampelonskiy told Izvestia that "Wikipedia was saved by FSKN," the Federal Drug Control Service of Russia. He said that FSKN certfied that the article was no longer in violation of the law. He said
|We highly value the efforts the Wikipedia community made on Saturday and Sunday to change the text. The first version of the 'Charas' article did not even have one corroborative source, so it was not even in accordance with the rules of Wikipedia itself ... The text was completely reworked by the editors, and really became academic and based on science.
While this threat may be over, at least temporarily, Sputnik ominously reports that "Roskomnadzor is waiting for Wikipedia to change the content of three articles; on 'self-immolation,' 'suicide,' and 'ways of committing suicide,' which were declared against the law by Rospotrebnadzor, the federal watchdog for consumer protection." G