Russia's new Web blacklist is only the most recent of an alarming series of authoritarian moves to muzzle networked communications. National governments bent on censorship are eating away at the global, public Internet.
On Wednesday, the Russian parliament's lower house approved legislation that would block Web pages selectively. The proposed law reportedly lets officials filter out specific domain names and IP addresses. Law enforcement agencies could add URLs to the blacklist without a court order. Hosting services would need to remove banned materials within 72 hours or risk being shut down.
Ostensibly, the law would protect children from pornography, drug abuse, suicide and information "harmful to their health and development" - surely a worthy goal. However, the ulterior motive behind the proposed legislation isn't hard to figure out: The Internet has become central in coordinating antigovernment protest, and the new law would hand the government a Net-busting sledgehammer.
Russia's government routinely crushes challenges to the status quo. The Putin regime has taken tight control over broadcast media and dragged its heels in investigating the murders of 26 journalists. It has battled U.N. resolutions that would compel it to respect human rights. Another bill currently in the Russian parliament would increase penalties for defamation, while yet another would compel nongovernmental organizations that accept foreign financing to register as foreign agents. The new law lays the groundwork for tighter state control of expression, assembly, fundraising - indeed, just about any activity that threatens the government's grip on power.
An International Wave of Net Censorship
Russia's action is disturbing - but far from unique. Reporters Without Borders, a journalism watchdog organization, documents a rising tide of network censorship cases worldwide in its "Internet Enemies Report 2012." Egypt cut Internet access for five days in January 2011. Syria makes a habit of throttling bandwidth during political crises. Thailand blocks expression critical of the monarchy. Tajikistan blocks Facebook. And the impulse to censor isn't confined to habitually repressive governments: South Korea blocks North Korean propaganda, while India pressures service providers and hosting companies to block content that might inflame ethnic tension. Australia filters pages it deems objectionable. In the U.S., San Francisco Bay Area transit officials cut mobile service to disrupt the Occupy movement.
The mother of all Internet censorship programs is, of course, the infamous Great Firewall of China, which suppresses not only destabilizing dissent but discussions of history, religion, government corruption and social issues of all kinds - communications essential to the progress of a society undergoing rapid change, as all societies must in an era of exponential technology development.
The Role of the Resistance
Internet companies can play a critical role in resisting such censorship. Wikipedia, LiveJournal and the Yandex search engine have removed their Russian-language pages in protest. Internet giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter - sites that play a fundamental role in making the Internet work - would do well to join the resistance, not to mention companies such as Deutsche Telekom that keep Internet packets flowing. Their withdrawal of service would make a strong statement that the Internet is, by nature, global, and that the entire world has a stake in maintaining its integrity.
The Internet, according to Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe's famous law, gains value exponentially with each additional node. Conversely, its utility degrades as nodes are removed. The creeping restriction of Internet traffic - no matter what the rationale - does incalculable damage to the Net as a whole.