Wikipedia's Suicide Mission Against Russian Censors

Smoking cannabis is dangerous business for people the world over. In Russia, just writing about it online is apparently enough to run afoul of federal anti-drug police, as that nation’s Wikipedians learned last Friday, April 5, 2013. It was then that state officials first informed Wikimedia Russia, the Wikimedia Foundation’s local chapter, that the government has placed its “Cannabis Smoking” article [ru] on its blacklist of illegal websites.

Troubles multiplied for the “Free Encyclopedia” when Vladimir Pikov, spokesman for Roskomnadzor (the agency charged with managing the blacklist), went on national radio [ru] and revealed that 15 different Wikipedia articles are now among the URLs banned in Russia. “[Wikipedia] has been on the list for a long time,” Pikov later told [ru], adding, “Why people are suddenly realizing this now, I don’t know.”

Responsibility for the confusion seems to lie with the government, yet it turns out that officials neglected to inform Wikimedia Russia about any of its blacklisting decisions until last week. (Pikov says Roskomnadzor was unable to reach Wikipedia’s nonvolunteer administrators.) Only aggravating the mess, the documents ultimately transmitted to Wikimedia are full of chronological holes. According to the actual [ru] “united registry” directory, for instance, the “Cannabis” article landed on the blacklist back in mid-December 2012. The paperwork [ru] sent on April 5, however, reports that anti-drug police came to their decision on March 26, 2013.

As it turns out, since last year there have been at least seven redundant decisions by state regulators and police to add Wikipedia’s “Cannabis” article to the RuNet blacklist. In a blog post [ru] published April 8, Wikimedia Russia revealed that a total of ten Wikipedia articles (not fifteen, as Pikov told RSN radio) are technically banned in Russia as of this moment. These encyclopedia entries relate to narcotics (cannabis smoking, LSD, etc.) and suicide (self-immolation, “suicide methods,” and so on), include both Russian and English articles, and were selected by officials from three different agencies: Roskomnadzor, FSKN (the anti-drugs police), and Rospotrebnadzor (consumer rights regulators).

Russian Wikipedia’s Twitter account announced [ru] the discovery with a nod to fellow prey of the federal blacklist:

Вот оно наконец и случилось: нас внесли в чёрный список (дважды?) за статью «Курение каннабиса». Привет @ru_pirateparty и @lurkmore_ru.

Well at last it’s finally happened: they’ve put us on the blacklist (twice?) for the article “Smoking Cannabis.” Hello to @ru_pirateparty and @lurkmore_ru.

Since the news broke last Friday, Russian Wikipedians have been feverishly revising and refining [ru] the “Cannabis” article, though not with any express aim to reconcile its content with Russia’s Internet censorship laws. The “Cannabis” article is almost six years old (first created in December 2006), and it has endured more than five hundred edits in that lifespan. Indeed, the latest wave of revisions addresses Wikipedia’s own quite stringent standards of objectivity and citation. On several Wikipedia discussion boards [ru], editors voiced their opinions about Russian officials’ decisions to ban several of their articles. While some users expressed concerns that the articles in question are poorly written, commenters are unsurprisingly and overwhelmingly opposed to deleting or altering the site’s material to accommodate the RuNet blacklist.

Editor Dmitry Rozhkov writes [ru] plainly:

Пусть закрывают, чё. Реакция на блокировку Википедии уже известна. Сами себя заблокируют.

Let them close [the site], hell. The reaction to blocking Wikipedia is already known. They’re [only] blocking off themselves.

Another user named Tucha (“stormcloud”) muses [ru]:

Пусть закрывают. Это может быть забавно, такая классная реклама для одной статьи.

Let them close it. It could be funny, such a classic advertisement for one article.

This, of course, was a reference to the Streisand Effect, “the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.” The Effect operated in force over the weekend, propelling Russian Wikipedia’s “Cannabis” article to roughly 13,000% its normal traffic, jumping from 431 views on Thursday, April 4, to over 56,000 views the next day. In the past week, the “Cannabis” article has attracted over 125 thousand views, fewer only than the site’s entries for Odnoklassniki (a RuNet social network) and Margaret Thatcher (who died on April 8).

In a news post [ru] on, Wikimedia Russia’s executive director, Stanislav Kozlovsky, complained that the RuNet blacklist’s vague prerogative threatens an absurdly broad spectrum of online content:

Даже название статьи «Курение каннабиса» можно подвести под его формулировку, так как законом запрещено упоминать о способах употребления наркотиков. […] По самоубийствам аналогично: фразы «Есенин повесился», «Маяковскийзастрелился», «Ромео и Джульетта отравились» — уже повод для блокировки сайта, так как всё это способы совершения самоубийств.

Even the name of the article, “Cannabis Smoking,” might subject it to the [blacklist’s] formula, since it makes it illegal even to mention the means of drug use. […] It’s the same for suicide: the phrases “Yesenin hanged himself,” “Mayakovsky shot himself,” and “Romeo and Juliet poisoned themselves” are also excuses to block the site, since they all concern means of committing suicide.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, 12 July 2008, photo by Joi Ito, CC 2.0.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, 12 July 2008, photo by Joi Ito, CC 2.0.

Earlier today, April 9, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales responded [ru] to Ain92, a Russia-based Wikipedian, who notified Wales on his user page that “two articles of English Wikipedia is forbidden (blacklisted) by Roskomnadzor [sic].” Wales’ answer was unambiguously defiant:

For me, being blocked is always preferable to collaborating with censors. It's important to understand that the fear of site-wide blocking is based in concerns that some (smaller, presumably) ISPs may lack sufficient technical resources to block individual pages, forcing them to block the entire site to comply with the law. Believe me, if those ISPs block the entire site, while other ISPs only block specific pages, the ones which block all of Wikipedia will lose customers very very quickly. We are not weak, we are very powerful. Catering to the demands of weak and cowardly politicians – the kind who fear the spread of knowledge – is not the Wikipedia way.

Wales, though, will not be the one to decide how Wikipedia’s drug- and suicide-related content develops in response to the Russian authorities. That honor lies with Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, who were responsible for the articles in the first place. That said, all indications are that neither Russia’s officials nor her Wikipedians are likely to budge. That means “Cannabis Smoking” and its subversive neighbors are probably on the RuNet blacklist to stay.

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