Wikipedia Russia blackout: “Imagine a world without free knowledge”
Kirill Zhurenkov

MOSCOW - This summer there was an unpleasant surprise for many Russian Internet users – the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia was shut down.

Of course, it was only for one day. “Imagine a world without free knowledge,” the home page said, instead of the usual search functions. “The Wikipedia community is protesting censorship that is dangerous to freedom of information.”

The reason for the protest was a proposed law in the Russian Duma regarding the protection of children from harmful information. The idea behind the proposal was perfectly legitimate. It would create a blacklist of sites with content such as child pornography or information on, for example, how to commit suicide, and those sites would be blocked. It was introduced by people not normally suspected of trying to force something down our throats.

But to many, the proposed law is an attack on Internet freedom. They are worried that it is really an attempt to set up a Russian version of the Great Firewall of China, as the strict Chinese Internet filter system is often called. In spite of the protests, the law was adopted, and went into effect last week.

Blacklist management

Above all, there is a blacklist of all sites considered inappropriate. The government has set up a special site (zapret-info.gov.ru) to manage the blacklist. Of course, users cannot actually see a list there, but anyone can type an address into the search function to see if it is on the blacklist.

Users can also file complaints about any online resource they do not like or which they believe has harmful information. Experts will investigate each complaint, but the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technology would not comment on the identities of those experts are nor give details on how they would conduct investigations. Final decisions about whether or not a site should be blocked will be made by three government agencies: the Federal IT agency, the consumer protection agency and the federal narcotics bureau. Their decisions will be made administratively, without consulting a court of law.

The site’s owners will then be notified and will have to fix whatever the violation is, or be blacklisted definitively. The offending IP address will be blocked, a blunt enforcement method that could block innocent sites that use shared servers. At the time this article went to press, less than a week after the law went into effect, six sites had already blacklisted.

State monopoly on digital info

The government ministries will probably not be able to manage the blacklist on their own, and they will probably be assisted by nonprofit organizations.

Officials are using that fact to try to calm down the law’s opponents, saying that there will not be censorship. They said that once they have a little more experience with the law, they might even consult with Wikipedia about its implementation. But not everyone believes it. Since last March, Reporters Without Borders has been warning of the risk of a widening government monopoly over Internet information in Russia.

According to experts, that is not the only risk for the Russian Internet. The real problem facing websites and Internet users is hacker attacks and the increased cost of protecting against them. It seems likely that consumers in Russia will be expected to pay substantially more for Internet service because of all the technology needed to protect against hacking. In the worst-case scenario, Russians will be paying more for Internet access but getting less information.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ