Censorship and online media in the CIS: lessons and best practices

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Session Description

The proposed session will focus on the effects of national censorship regimes on the operation of independent media outlets in authoritarian countries. The Commonwealth of Independent States (former Soviet republics) will be used as an example to demonstrate the progression of online information control mechanisms in authoritarian polities and its effect on the operation of independent media. Following the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, the former Soviet republics underwent a period of brief democratic restructuring, followed by reversal to authoritarian practices. To boost economic growth, the authorities in the region invested in the development of new communications technologies, which resulted in building of modern Internet infrastructures and nurturing of vibrant online communities. Until recently, the Internet served as the only domain where the CIS netizens could access uncensored information and speak up their minds. This, however, changed following the Arab Spring (2011) when the local leaders realized the potential of the web to facilitate political dissent. Various information control mechanisms were swiftly introduced to restrict access to information online, which has negatively affected the operation of local media outlets. The genesis and progression of the information controls in the CIS is emblematic for other transitional and authoritarian states in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America where online censorship tends to follow similar dynamics. Thus, this session will be beneficial to media producers, journalists and civil society activists from other censorship hotspots. They will have the opportunity to learn about the experience of their colleagues from the CIS and share their own. The session will provide answers to questions such as:

What media outlets get censored in the CIS?

What normative and technical instruments are used for this purpose?

What methods and tools are used by these media to tackle state censorship and remain connected to their audiences?

The experience and best practices of media organizations from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Turkmenistan and other countries will be presented and subjected to discussion. The session will provide a unique opportunity for media practitioners from other countries to share their stories and views on the topic.

Censorship and online media in the CIS: lessons and best practices
Presenter/s Igor Valentovitch and Jessica Wever
Bio/s Igor Valentovitch is regional program director at Psiphon Inc. He researches the development of the Internet and information control mechanisms in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states. He works with various independent media organizations in the CIS, helping them to stay commented to their audiences. Before Psiphon, Igor worked as a researcher and policy analyst at the Citizen Lab (Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto) where he studied the international regimes and internet governance in Eurasia as well as the regulation, filtering and surveillance of internet-based communications in Europe and Central Asia. Igor also worked as a journalist at the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency. He holds master’s (Central European University) and doctoral (University of Toronto) degrees in Political Science. For his PhD dissertation, Igor studied the media of the largest ethnic minority groups in Europe.

Jessica Wever is Outreach and Operations Manager at Psiphon Inc. Her educational background is in Women’s Studies and History. Jessica also obtained a Master’s degree in Information studies from the University of Toronto.

Language English

Session Comments

Session Notes:

CIS = Commonwealth of Independent States (former Soviet republics)

Strong filtering and surveillance - most countries, mild in Kyrgyzstan, none on Moldova. Asterisk beside Ukraine

Common elements:

- consolidated authoritarian regimes

- restraint and political oppression

- state controlled media, etc


- 68% internet penetration

- ecommerce 2% of GDP

- 3rd country in interest traffic generation

- 94% of big city residents connected

1st gen filtering detected on ALL major ISPs

- proxy-server filtering systems

- Only top 3 ISPs use DPI

2nd generation controls - surveillance

- 7 state agencies conduct surveillance of phone calls and online communications

- Legal instruments - e.g. criminalization of libel,

- 2014 - law against “extremist” retweets

- 2014 registration of blogs, social networks, email providers

- 2014 - data localization law

- etc

3rd generation controls - Kremlin’s Trill Factory

Hundreds of paid bloggers working 24/7, who flood chat rooms, etc

Use of Anonymizing, Circumvention Tools and Encryption Tools

Restricted in many places

What is blocked in Russia?

- Site with unlawful content

- Independent news sites

- anti-corruption blogs

- Ukrainian websites criticizing Kremlin policies in region - e.g. Grani.ru, everyday Journal, Kasparov.ru

Elsewhere in CIS

- Critical indigenous media

- LGBT content

- Human rights groups

- Etc

Effects of Blocking on Online Media

- Loss of audience

- Loss of advertising

- Loss of revenue

- Loss of professionals

- Increase/decrease of popularity

Blocked Media Responses

- Disappear

- Comply with censor

- Create mirror sites

- Utilize Western social networks like Twitter, Facebook as alternative publishing platforms

- Etc

What is Psiphon?

- Open source circumvention tool

- 15 million users

- Android and Windows clients

- Doesn’t collect users data

- Used by international broadcasters - BBC, Voice of America

Siphon Library (API) - Hosting Red Rose, banned movie

Can get app via website or email - www.psiphon.ca

Branded version has a monthly subscription (e.g. for BBC)