Russia briefly banned and then unbanned the entire Wikipedia site today following an outbreak of panic among internet users in the country.
A court in the small town of Chyorny Yar had imposed the ban after over concerns that an article on charas – an Indian form of hashish – contained harmful information.
Users across the country soon reported that the whole site had been blocked after Wikipedia RU, the group that supports the Russian language version of the site, decided not to amend the article.
Sky News says that Roskomnadzor, the national communications watchdog, added Wikipedia to its list of banned sites but soon removed it again, claiming the offending entry had been changed. However, users said that nothing in the body of the text appeared to be different – merely that the title had been altered.
Although authorities only wanted the article on charas banned, the site’s use of the “https” secure protocol meant that many providers had difficulty blocking just a single page and consequently had to block the entire site.
Recent laws allow authorities, including small local courts, to block websites across the entire country if they deem them to contain harmful material. Critics have described this as an attempt to crack down on free speech, pointing to the number of opposition websites that have been blocked.
Next month, a rule will come into effect forcing major websites such as Facebook and Twitter to store the data of all Russian users on servers within the country. Critics fear this is a deliberate attempt by the government to make accessing data on opposition supporters even easier than it already is.
Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov told The Guardian that this may be part of a wider battle by Russian authorities against “https”.
“Roskomnadzor and the FSB [security services] don’t know what to do with it,” he said.
“There are two options for https: the first is to have access to the data before encryption, which explains the demand to store servers in Russia. The second is to try to force services to give up on https, which is what is happening with Wikipedia.”