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Russia’s war with Wikipedia

(AFP via Getty Images)

This post has been updated.

The recent battle between Russian authorities and Wikipedia started in a village called Chyorny Yar (population: less than 8,000) in southern Russia.

A prosecutor in the village was concerned about a Wikipedia entry on charas, a form of cannabis, though the reasons are unclear. Chyorny Yar appears to have no major problems with drug abuse — and apparently no cannabis fields. According to Wikipedia, charas is a “hashish form of cannabis which is handmade in India, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nepal and Jamaica” — places far from Chyorny Yar.

The prosecutor demanded that the Russian-language Wikipedia entry be deleted. A court in the village endorsed his position in June.

On Monday, Russia’s Internet watchdog — Roskomnadzor — asked service providers to block the Wikipedia page. Wikipedia, however, uses the https protocol for secure communication, which in turn means that providers have difficulty blocking individual articles. Given this constraint, Roskomnadzor underlined in a statement on its Facebook page last week that Russian providers would have to block the whole Internet encyclopedia to enforce the ban on the charas entry.

As of Monday afternoon, however, Wikipedia was still available in Russia.

Stanislav Kozlovskiy, executive director of the Wikimedia foundation in Russia, expects that it will take a day for authorities and providers to enforce the ban.

“The whole of Wikipedia will be blocked for most Russian users once it’s implemented,” Kozlovskiy told The Washington Post.

According to him, the majority of Russian providers lack the expensive equipment that would enable them to block only specific Wikipedia pages.

He added, “We are not going to stop using the https protocol to make it easier for Roskomnadzor to censor Wikipedia.”

Overnight from Monday to Tuesday, Wikipedia was completely unavailable for some Russian users for a short period of time, while others could still access it. On early Tuesday morning, the authorities removed the ban from the charas entry, declaring that the text had been edited to comply with the court decision. Wikipedia administrators, however, claimed that no edits were done on Monday night, but that all had been done before the ban.

Reddit, an entertainment and news Web site, faced a similar threat recently. Russian authorities briefly blocked it because of a thread about growing psilocybin mushrooms. The ban was revoked after the site restricted access to this thread in Russia. Reddit also uses the https protocol.

After Russian authorities asked Wikipedia to delete the charas entry, Wikipedia users changed its name and the URL. The Russian-language article is now called “Charas (narcotic substance).” Users also changed the text of the entry. It now has only scientific articles and U.N. data as its sources. The text also contains information about the health risks posed by cannabis and notes that this narcotic is banned in Russia. But Roskomnadzor officials deemed the changes unsatisfactory on Monday and insisted that the entry be deleted.

It is not the first time that Roskomnadzor has demanded that Wikipedia delete articles. Several dozen Wikipedia pages on drugs and suicide have been blacklisted since 2012. All but four of them were eventually removed from the list, and Wikipedia has engaged in talks with authorities about the content of the banned entries. It has not deleted those pages.

It is, however, the first time that Russian authorities have asked providers to block a Wikipedia page.

“It was a dialogue in previous cases,” Kozlovskiy said. He and his colleagues used to talk to representatives of Roskomnadzor directly on the phone and discuss the text and its sources. The banned articles would then be edited by users to appease the watchdog. But in the charas case, all attempts by Wikimedia to contact Roskomnadzor reportedly failed.

“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,” Kozlovskiy said. “They preferred to communicate via statements on the Internet instead.”

On Friday, Roskomnadzor posted its last threat in the Russian social network, saying it would ask providers to block Wikipedia if the entry about the drug is not deleted.

In 2012, Wikipedia protested legislation allowing Russian authorities to block Web sites without court order, shutting down for 24 hours in the country. Since the law’s enactment, tens of thousands of Web pages have been blacklisted. Most have been targeted because they deal with drugs, pornography, suicide or other subjects that Russian authorities consider harmful to children. But Web sites with “extremist” content, including appeals for gatherings not approved by Russian authorities, also can now be easily banned. The new rules were used to block several opposition blogs and Web sites.

Wikipedia has noted that the legislation is formulated very vaguely, allowing authorities to put pressure on Web site owners and to block pages under minor pretexts.

The popularity of the Russian-language Wikipedia article on charas skyrocketed on the two days from 200-400 visits per day up to more than 193,000 on Tuesday, with the entry becoming the most visited Wikipedia page in Russia.