Google is launching an appeal with a Russian court in what it describes as a test case against a new law that some critics say could lead to censorship of the internet.
The internet giant announced today that it’s filed a lawsuit in a Moscow court against Russia’s consumer protection and public health and safety agency Rospotrebnadzor, after it blocked a video on YouTube demonstrating a theatrical make-up effect that makes it appear as if a razor blade is stuck in someone’s wrist. It’s essentially just a trick that would go with a cool Halloween costume, but Russia’s consumer regulator says that the information provided in the clip could help someone to commit suicide.
YouTube bowed to the agency’s request to block the video in Russia, rather than risk officials block the entire site, but now Google has decided to launch this test case in order to “clarify the boundaries of Russia’s new legislation”, according to the BBC.
“While we support the greatest access to information possible, we will, at times, restrict content on country-specific domains where a nation’s laws require it or if content is found to violate our Community Guidelines,” said a spokesperson for Google.
“In this case, we have appealed the decision of Russian Consumer Watchdog because we do not believe that the goal of the law was to limit access to videos that are clearly intended to entertain viewers.”
The legislation in question, which has been dubbed the “Russian SOPA”, was apparently designed to make it easier for authorities to block websites promoting what they deem to be ‘harmful’ content – such as sites that host child pornography, glorify drugs or provide instructions on how to commit suicide. Needleless to say, the law provoked some harsh criticism when it was adopted by Russia’s parliament last year, with some of the staunchest opponents including the country’s leading search company Yandex, as well as its top social media site Vkontakt, and the Russian version of Wikipedia.
“The need to fight child pornography and illegal content are as important for civil society as the support of constitutional principles like freedom of speech and access [to] information,” said Yelena Kolmanovskaya, chief editor of Yandex, at the time.
“However, the proposed methods provide a means for possible abuse and raise numerous questions from the side of users and representatives of internet companies.”
Under the legislation, Russian authorities created new mechanisms that would allow them to rapidly remove ‘offensive’ web pages, which includes blocking such sites through DNS and IP blockades, without having to ‘prove’ anything. One of the problems is that this kind of action could lead to entire domains being blocked, even if only one page is hosting illegal content.
An example of this danger occurred recently, when Russian netizens were blocked from accessing more than 1.3 million blogs hosted on Google’s Blogger service, due to a court ruling that ordered blogs hosting extremist material be taken down. Before that, in 2010, the entire YouTube service was taken down for a day by a local internet provider following a court decision that one video hosted on the site was illegal, said Google.
At least one person thinks that Google are likely to see a favorable outcome in their case against Russia’s consumer watchdog. In an interview with PC World, the director of Wikimedia Russia, Vladmir Medyko, said that Google would probably win the case, but that the ruling wouldn’t lead to any significant change in the law.
Under the new legislation, it’s down to alleged offenders to prove their innocence, rather than the other way around. According to Medyko, if Google were to win its case, this would only serve as proof that the law works as it should, in the eyes of Russia’s lawmakers.