Russia Blocks 4,000 Pirate Sites Plus 41,000 Innocent as Collateral Damage

A new study has revealed the extent of the collateral damage caused by Russia's site blocking regime. Introduced in 2013, blocking legislation was designed to prevent piracy and has since blacked-out more than 4,000 sites. However, due to its cumbersome nature, an additional 41,000 sites have also been affected, raising questions over the effectiveness of the campaign.

After years of criticism from both international and local rightsholders, in 2013 the Russian government decided to get tough on Internet piracy.

Under new legislation, sites engaged in Internet piracy could find themselves blocked by ISPs, rendering them inaccessible to local citizens and solving the piracy problem. Well, that was the theory, at least.

More than four years on, Russia is still grappling with a huge piracy problem that refuses to go away. It has been blocking thousands of sites at a steady rate, including RuTracker, the country’s largest torrent platform, but still the problem persists.

Now, a new report produced by Roskomsvoboda, the Center for the Protection of Digital Rights, and the Pirate Party of Russia, reveals a system that has not only failed to reach its stated aims but is also having a negative effect on the broader Internet.

“It’s already been four years since the creation of this ‘anti-piracy machine’ in Russia. The first amendments related to the fight against ‘piracy’ in the network came into force on August 1, 2013, and since then this mechanism has been twice revised,” Roskomsvoboda said in a statement.

“[These include] the emergence of additional responsibilities to restrict access to network resources and increase the number of subjects who are responsible for removing and blocking content. Since that time, several ‘purely Russian’ trends in ‘anti-piracy’ and trade in rights have also emerged.”

These revisions, which include the permanent blocking of persistently infringing sites and the planned blocking of mirror sites and anonymizers, have been widely documented. However, the researchers say that they want to shine a light on the effects of blocking procedures and subsequent actions that are causing significant issues for third-parties.

As part of the study, the authors collected data on the cases presented to the Moscow City Court by the most active plaintiffs in anti-piracy actions (mainly TV show distributors and music outfits including Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music). They describe the court process and system overall as lacking.

“The court does not conduct a ‘triple test’ and ignores the position, rights and interests of respondents and third parties. It does not check the availability of illegal information on sites and appeals against decisions of the Moscow City Court do not bring any results,” the researchers write.

“Furthermore, the cancellation of the unlimited blocking of a site is simply impossible and in respect of hosting providers and security services, those web services are charged with all the legal costs of the case.”

The main reason behind this situation is that ‘pirate’ site operators rarely (if ever) turn up to defend themselves. If at some point they are found liable for infringement under the Criminal Code, they can be liable for up to six years in prison, hardly an incentive to enter into a copyright process voluntarily. As a result, hosts and other providers act as respondents.

This means that these third-party companies appear as defendants in the majority of cases, a position they find both “unfair and illogical.” They’re also said to be confused about how they are supposed to fulfill the blocking demands placed upon them by the Court.

“About 90% of court cases take place without the involvement of the site owner, since the requirements are imposed on the hosting provider, who is not responsible for the content of the site,” the report says.

Nevertheless, hosts and other providers have been ordered to block huge numbers of pirate sites.

According to the researchers, the total has now gone beyond 4,000 domains, but the knock on effect is much more expansive. Due to the legal requirement to block sites by both IP address and other means, third-party sites with shared IP addresses get caught up as collateral damage. The report states that more than 41,000 innocent sites have been blocked as the result of supposedly targeted court orders.

But with collateral damage mounting, the main issue as far as copyright holders are concerned is whether piracy is decreasing as a result. The report draws few conclusions on that front but notes that blocks are a blunt instrument. While they may succeed in stopping some people from accessing ‘pirate’ domains, the underlying infringement carries on regardless.

“Blocks create restrictions only for Internet users who are denied access to sites, but do not lead to the removal of illegal information or prevent intellectual property violations,” the researchers add.

With no sign of the system being overhauled to tackle the issues raised in the study (pdf, Russian), Russia is now set to introduce yet new anti-piracy measures.

As recently reported, new laws requiring search engines to remove listings for ‘pirate’ mirror sites comes into effect October 1. Exactly a month later on November 1, VPNs and anonymization tools will have to be removed too, if they fail to meet the standards required under state regulation.

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