Russian Internet Content Monitoring System To Go Live In December
from the don't-give-them-ideas dept
Back in April of this year, the Russian government put out a tender:
Last week, Roskomnadzor, Russian Federal Service for Telecoms Supervision, announced a public tender for developing Internet monitoring system. According to the tender, the budget for such system is 15 million rubles (about $530,000) and the job applications should be submitted by April 15, 2011. The system needs to be developed by August 15, 2011 and the testing period should end on December 15, 2011.
The stated purpose of the monitoring system was quite specific:
The major target of the monitoring, at least according to the Russian officials, is not traditional media websites or blogs, but comments at the online media outlets (it is important to note that the monitoring system is intended to be used for the content of the sites officially registered as online mass media).
Here's what it would be searching for:
Michail Vorobiev, an assistant to the head of Roskomnadzor, told [ru] Russian information agency RIA Novosti that the system's purpose was to discover content recognized by the Russian law as illegal. Such system will be based on two elements: a storage that would contain illegal materials (some sort of "thesaurus of illegal keywords") and the search system that will scan through the online space and compare the online text with the illegal content in the storage.
It's hard to see how a system costing just half-a-million dollars could achieve all that. And as Russian commentators have pointed out, allowing just a few months for the development and testing is equally suspicious:
The description of the tender is a long and openly published document [ru], so what exactly the system should look for is not a secret. The number and the nature of goals that the search robot should achieve are surprising. It goes ways beyond incitement of national hatred or appeals to violence. In includes not only terrorism, appeals to actions that threaten constitutional order, materials that disclose classified security information, propaganda of drugs and pornography, but also false information about federal and regional officials, as well as content that threatens the freedom and secrecy of choice during elections. Another interesting goal is to discover content with hidden embedded components that seek to influence subconsciousness. If it’s not enough, the program would monitor not only textual, but also visual content (photos and videos).
For instance, Maksim Salomatin from Park.ru says [ru] that the fact that participants of the tender should finish the work on the system in impossible 3 months means that, probably, Roskomnadzor has in mind some particular organization that has already worked on this program.
In other words, perhaps the whole tendering process was a formality, and things had already been moving forward on this front in the background for some time. Support for that theory comes from the fact that despite the "impossible 3 months" of development, the system will indeed be rolled out next month:
Roskomnadzor, Russian telecommunications control body, will launch content monitoring system in December 2011, Kommersant.ru reports [ru]. The system ordered in March, 2011 (see GV analysis here) is now in pre-release condition. Its documented abilities allow the monitoring of up to 5 mln keywords published at the websites registered as online mass media outlets. It will also monitor user comments. The experts fear that the scale of monitoring will extend to non-registered blogs and sites.
As that points out, the danger is that once such a system is up and running, it will be progressively extended to include first "unofficial" media sites like blogs, and then, eventually, everything online. That might also explain why the tender quotes such a ridiculously small figure: the final system would be pretty expensive, but revealing that fact in the original tender would give away the true scope.
The question then becomes: what will the authorities do with all that information? Since 2010, Roskomnadzor has been able to require online mass media to remove illegal comments, so it will presumably do the same when content is flagged up by the new system. But the very breadth of the online search is troubling, including as it does things like "false information about federal and regional officials", something that could clearly be used against whistle-blowers.
Moreover, the danger here is not just for Russian citizens. Once again we are seeing a government striving to keep a much closer watch on key parts of the Internet – in this case, mass media sites. Assuming it succeeds -- or at least claims to have succeeded -- that is likely to encourage other countries to do the same.
Although it would be nice to think that only "repressive" governments would even think of doing such a thing, recent proposals by politicians in the US and Europe regarding blocking sites and spying on users indicate how naïve that would be.