Alexander Zharov, Head of Roscomnadzor Interview with Rossia-24 TV
Host: This is the OPINION program, and our guest tonight is Alexander Zharov, head of Roscomnadzor. We will discuss government efforts to counter extremism on the Web and the question whether it is possible to apply the Russian laws on bloggers to Western social media. Mr. Zharov will be interviewed by Evelina Zakamskaya. Good evening, Evelina.
CORR: Good evening, Anton. I hope to discuss all those matters with our guest in the next 30 minutes. Good evening, Mr. Zharov. I am pleased to welcome you in this studio. What is illegal content? How effective are current efforts against it, and how does the concept of illegal content change with political and economic reality and other such factors? How do you respond to evolving challenges?
ZHAROV: I will start with the end. The concept of illegal content does not change with political reality at all. The concept was first introduced in Russian legislation in 2010. In 2012, a unified register of banned information was established, and, by virtue of Federal Law No. 139, it included resources that, in my opinion and, I think, in the opinion of any sane person, are absolute evil – that’s child pornography, advertising suicide and distribution and use of narcotic drugs. Child pornography content gets blocked under our own authority, as for suicide advertising, the decisions to block are rendered by Rospotrebnadzor, and illegal drugs are within the authority of Gosnarkokontrol. It should be noted that putting a resource on the ban list does not block it automatically.
CORR: The register is a list of banned websites, right?
ZHAROV: A list of banned resources. When a resource is put on the register, we have three days to inform the resource owner and the provider hosting the resource that certain content must be deleted, so, please, remove it, and if the information is not deleted three days later, we upload it from that register to telecom operators – there are about 4,500 of those, - and they block such information. Since November we have received more than 165,000 reports from legal entities and individuals saying that certain resources carry banned information. An early screening performed by experts dismissed two-thirds of those reports, because they checked the resources but failed to find any banned information there, so some 53,000 Web resources have been put on the ban list. Some 65 per cent of those (32,000 to 33,000) are drug dealers’ websites. About 7,000 are websites containing child pornography. Some 6,000 web resources advertise suicide practices, about 6,000 resources have been blocked due to court rulings, for containing various information – about drugs, web-based casinos, slander against Russian nationals – a total of 6,000 resources. Another 4,000 resources have violated a different law – Federal Law 398, addressing extremist information, in those cases decisions to block the websites on a pre-trial basis are rendered by the Prosecutor General or a Deputy Prosecutor General. So about 4,000 websites like that have been put on the ban list. It should be pointed out that a majority of the web resources have deleted banned information, so at present, about 6,500 resources with unique IP-addresses are blocked – about 13 per cent of the total web resources put on the ban list originally. The percentage is rather stable, ranging between 12 and 15. Those are clearly motivated resources that publish illegal content, for the most part, as I have said, they are drug dealers’ and extremist resources. Is it possible to access blocked websites? Yes, it is possible, the Web is a medium in which you cannot block information entirely. But statistics we receive from telecom operators indicate that only a few percentage points of Web users resort to unblocking methods. 90-92 per cent of users have never accessed VPN services, anonymizers, proxy servicers, etc., so the main thing is that bona fide Web users who never try to access illegal information, I believe, have reliable protection from negative information due to the unified register mechanism.
CORR: Suppose a website or a resource gets blocked, but its owners disagree, how soon is it possible to unblock it and how can the owner prove that this has been a mistake?
ZHAROV: We do have a hotline associated with the unified register, and we do receive reports from bona fide users that their resource has been blocked, although it contains no negative information. Why does this happen? About 70 per cent of telecom operators use modern equipment and software that blocks specific Web pages or specific URLs. But about 30 per cent of operators, smaller ones, as a rule, have no such equipment, it is quite costly, you know, so some 30 per cent of users receive traffic blocked on an IP-address basis. Those IP-addresses may host both illegal websites, with illegal information, and bona fide websites. The Pirates’ Party, which pursues political aims, claims that 90 per cent of the content blocked is legal. This is not so. They use various numbers – 87,000 or 189,000 websites, whatever. They just use public information and calculate how many websites can be accommodated in one IP-address. Well, I believe we should use reliable numbers. In the past 2.5 years, we received 870 hotline reports about good content being blocked along with negative content sites, plus another 200 reports through other Roscomnadzor channels. That makes a total of about 1,000 reports. We have had two litigations, one, with the owner of a Web library that offered, according to Gosnarkokontrol, a book advertising illegal drugs, and one had to do with a resource that designed paradoxical data security methods and shared an IP-address with a drug dealer group. Both resources migrated to different IP-addresses and are now accessible, and we won both lawsuits. What I mean is that a majority of bona fide resources, when they get blocked along with a drug-dealing website or the owner of other banned content, normally migrate to different IP-addresses, which is a simple procedure, and the domain name, ie the resource’s name, remains unchanged, so it’s no big deal. And I believe that the existing website blocking methodology, one, encourages hosting providers to check whom they are about to host and to keep criminals out, because criminals will cause them to lose bona fide customers. And, we try to encourage as many telecom operators as possible to block specific Web pages. We conduct workshops for them, discussing how to install Web page blocking software at minimum cost.
CORR: But abusers are free to use the same methods to dodge blocking, by changing their IP-addresses, so your policy should be designed to counteract them.
ZHAROV: I will give you another example. Under Federal Law No. 398, the Prosecutor General or a Deputy Prosecutor General issues orders that certain information that is extremist, advocates terrorism, or calls people to attend unauthorized rallies must be blocked. And that includes blocking all mirror sites or copies of such information, since, obviously, extremist groups now use IT systems, pursue rather aggressive marketing and PR strategies, and disseminate information in multiple resources at the same time. So suppose we have an order from the Office of the Prosecutor General to block, let’s say, 600 resources. In fact, we block more than 4,000, of which 3,600 resources are mirrors and copies identified by our specialists, which makes about five sixths of the total information blocked. So, no matter how they dodge or hide, we try to trace and block negative content. Obviously, we are one step behind, so the information does get spread. But this has to end somewhere, because sooner or later they get tired of dodging us, and they shift to different negative content. Rather, this is an endless story, yet we hope that our work is quite effective.
CORR: Well, what do you think about the so-called Streisand effect? Remember the story of Barbara Streisand, when a picture of her house was put on the Web, and no one was interested, only 6 visits of the Web site, including 2 by lawyers, until she mentioned the fact and the web site was blocked. After the Web site was blocked and then unblocked, I think it got more than half a million views.
ZHAROV: Well, the Streisand effect certainly exists. But speaking of websites that deliberately disseminate negative content – drug dealers’ and extremists’ websites that we block tightly and try to block them forever, we see several stages as we do so. During the first stage, when we block the resource, it migrates to other IP addresses, trying to dodge us, the blocking is not tight enough, and the situation goes public. It is discussed in the media, in social media, and the Streisand effect certainly works. A few days later, 7 to 10 days later, the following declines, as we block more and more IP addresses, and the access gets increasingly difficult, so 7 to 10 days later the following gets smaller than the original number. Then, about one month later, only the core followers, highly motivated users, remain, and they use every means - anonymizers, proxy servers, VPN networks, the TOR network, to access the resource. But a great majority, 90 per cent of bona fide followers, who used to visit the website out of ignorance or curiosity, stop visiting it, so the main objective of criminal marketers – maximizing the following, does not get achieved.
CORR: So the resource is reached only by those who want to access it really bad? You can’t just bump into such information…
ZHAROV: And that’s only a few percentage points of the original followers.
CORR: You’ve mentioned the TOR system. In general, what do you think about anonymous traffic and the initiative to pass a law to ban the use of such traffic?
ZHAROV: We thank MP Levin for raising the subject. It should be noted that traffic encryption is a problem, and the volume of encrypted traffic tripled globally between the end of 2013 and the end of 2014. Encrypted traffic totaled some 4 per cent at the end of 2013, now it is up to 13 per cent. Proxying software, successful and effective, proxy servers and anonymizers, many of them provided for a fee, plus dozens, hundreds or even thousands of homemade software products. Obviously, the TOR network is an effective tool. In a recently published report, the network clearly stated that 75 per cent of their funding comes from the US government. They are trying to lower that percentage to 50, by attracting donations. But you can draw your own conclusions. Well, the network does work, and if you ask whether it is possible to block an anonymizer or a proxy server, the answer is yes. All it takes is to put a few hundred or a few thousand IP addresses on the unified register, and the telecom operators will block those. Would that be effective? The answer is no, because two or five or more new proxy servers will be created a day or two later. Considering that only a few percentage points of Russian citizens use those resources to access illegal content, would it make sense to block those resources at this point? No. But we certainly need to study the issue, because the volume of encrypted traffic is growing, and sales of those software products, in software shops and elsewhere, are growing, too. There are a number of countries that block anonymous traffic – China, Syria, Thailand, Iran, and some other countries. So we are starting to study the issue and we’ll probably find some solutions, in order to protect Russian citizens from negative content.
CORR: The issue is that, it’s not enough to impose a legislative ban, an acceptable technical solution is required. Another problem is the need to compete against not only Web criminals, but also against the country that sets the trends and the rules in that field, the United States. Now, what about personal anonymity? This is another area where there is a conflict of interest with Western social media. We do have a law on bloggers, but how effective has it been?
ZHAROV: The law on bloggers was enacted last year. During the first six months we have registered just over 500 bloggers.
CORR: They just honestly identified themselves to you, right?
ZHAROV: We use a variety of methods. We register bloggers at their own requests or at requests from caring citizens and blog readers. We have certain methodologies for interacting with social media – Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, and LiveJournal. We have designed methods of keeping track of the number of visitors, which is important, because a blogger must have more than 3,000 unique visitors per day, and we do that without violating laws and social media’s internal regulations. It is much more difficult to deal with foreign social media – Twitter and Facebook, for them, the United States is indeed the trend-setter. For example, in its last year’s public report about requests from governments, Twitter writes that more than 2,500 user personal data inquiries from the US administration were fully granted, while 108 inquiries from Roscomnadzor were denied. Well, they reply that “your inquiry has been re-directed to the user, and he may use Twitter Analytics and advise you whether he has 3,000 or more followers. The same report also mentions that Twitter deliberately refuses to block extremist resources of Ukrainian extremist organizations, which are on our list of extremist organizations, and we thought that was unacceptable, so I sent an official letter to the Twitter administration and got a reply a couple of days ago, saying that our inquiry was being reviewed, and a response would be provided, and Twitter intended to pursue contacts about our requests to use Twitter Analytics, etc. Yesterday I signed another letter requesting that replies to our inquiries be provided soon. And I hope that, with Twitter, our negative statistics will change. At least, the Twitter management replied that they meant to make progress.
CORR: What if they don’t?
ZHAROV: If they don’t, well, we can be patient. According to a variety of estimates, you know, there are 9 million to 12 million Twitter users in Russia. I do hope that reason and constructive, pragmatic positions will prevail, and we will arrive at some solution after all. With Facebook, the situation is more exotic. Some time ago, a FB user – a popular blogger, with thousands of visits and hundreds of likes every day, - requested his blog statistics from FB. FB replied they had no such information because did not keep track of Web page visitors. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but that’s what they replied. Our Belgian colleagues, specializing in information security, published a report some time ago, its title, I think, is: “Social Media. Advertising Model”. In that report, they write that Facebook has moved its focus from users to Big Data, and it has modified its user agreement, stating that any information can be used for advertising purposes. I don’t think this is very good for users, and social media are supposed to take care of their users, you know. Well, that’s their decision. Anyway, we are moving, rather slowly, in that direction, we have popular TV hosts, your colleagues, and some other Twitter users registered, we have a register of bloggers who have used Twitter Analytics. And, once again, we will be moving patiently and consistently, towards finding solutions with our colleagues in the U.S.
CORR: How patient you are prepared to be – that is the question. Also, doesn’t this eliminate the competitive edge of Russian social media vs. Western ones? Just register with Facebook, and you will be exempt from the Russian law on bloggers, isn’t that so?
ZHAROV: The point is, it is up to the blogger to decide whether the blogger wants to be covered by the law on bloggers or not, because the law does not provide for any sanctions against bloggers. I believe it is a valuable asset to have a register to confirm that you have more than 3,000 followers, so in fact you are a mass medium. That you are popular, as illustrated by hard evidence.
CORR: So it is a brand of sorts?
ZHAROV: It is, yes. But also it is a tool for protecting our citizens because many, most social media are anonymous. And a person facing insults from social media must have a tool for finding out who is behind such insults.
CORR: This is certainly correct, and there are initiatives proposed by many countries in that area. What are you protecting citizens from by blocking Lurkmore?
ZHAROV: The Lurkmore situation has been resolved, just shortly before this program. Speaking about Lurkmore, we should mention a few other resources, too. In fact, we have been cooperating with Lurkmore throughout the 2.5 years. Its content includes contributions from users, so, time and again, it publishes illegal content, information advertising suicidal behavior, child pornography, drugs, etc. Dmitry Khomak, the owner of Lurkmore, always cooperated with us and rapidly blocked such information in Russia. What happened this time – I don’t know, maybe he’s pursuing some marketing objectives, trying to enhance the website’s popularity. He’s written in his Twitter that Roscomnadzor has been blackmailing him, that he considers our behavior unacceptable, I don’t know why. We had clear and reasonable requests from Rospotrebnadzor, regarding three links to suicide advertising content, and one decision by Roscomnadzor, regarding descriptions and propaganda of pedophilia. As of now, he has deleted all that content, so Lurkmore was removed from the ban list one hour ago and is now accessible. Back in November, there was a similar situation, rather high-profile, involving GitHub, a resource used by millions of software designers. It offers access to a free software code and is used to design software products. In November, the resource had text messages in Russian, published by anonymous users, advertising suicide. Rospotrebnadzor viewed those as covered by Federal Law 139, and this led to a lengthy correspondence between us and GitHub. We wrote to the administration that the messages must be deleted – but got no reply. We used specialist news media and social media to request users to pass the message to GitHub. After that, we published the message – and again there was no response. This was a highly public situation. Eventually, after all the deadlines, we blocked GitHub. This caused a storm in the social media and specialist media. Indeed, users were deprived of a working tool, but everyone criticized Roscomnadzor for blocking the resource.
CORR: This was predictable, you should have been prepared for that.
ZHAROV: We were prepared, and a few days later the content was deleted, and we unblocked GitHub. Moreover, the Streisand effect really worked, and the resource was visited by lots of people, just visiting, and the website emphasized that they always complied with the laws of the countries in which they operate. End of story. What was that about? Clearly a provocation by those who published that content. What took GitHub so long to delete it? I don’t know. For example, Vimeo, a website that hosted a documentary about the Islamic State, a horrible documentary, with executions and all, kept the documentary on for several days, too.
CORR: This is a story of provocation and manipulation. Something you are really prepared for. This is your day-to-day work. We have little time left, and another major story to comment on – the CNN situation. What are CNN’s prospects for getting a Russian broadcasting license?
ZHAROV: About 6 weeks ago, I met with the Turner administration, CNN has been re-registered as a news media, and a general license submission is being processed. I think they will have a general license in a few days or weeks, and they will be able to enter into contracts with cable TV operators and satellite broadcasting operators.
CORR: So it is possible to reach agreements with you.
ZHAROV: Absolutely, we are open to negotiations and agreement.
CORR: I hope that message has been heard. Thank you for this interview. Mr. Alexander Zharov has been interviewed by Opinion.
Time of the publication: 17.03.2015 17:00
Last modified: 17.03.2015 17:02