Russian Site-Blocking Chiefs Under Investigation For Fraud

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A scandal is emerging in Russia after several officials of Russian site-blocking body Rozcomnadzor were charged with fraud. Those arrested include the watchdog's spokesman and top lawyer, both of whom have been placed under house arrest. It's alleged that the telecoms authority 'employed' ghost staff whose salaries were actually paid to existing employees, on top of their own money.

Over the past several years, Rozcomnadzor has become a highly controversial government body in Russia. With responsibility for ordering web-blockades against sites the country deems disruptive, it’s effectively Russia’s online censorship engine.

In total, Rozcomnadzor has ordered the blocking of more than 82,000 sites. Within that total, at least 4,000 have been rendered inaccessible on copyright grounds, with an additional 41,000 innocent platforms blocked as collateral damage.

This massive over-blocking has been widely criticized in Russia but until now, Rozcomnadzor has appeared pretty much untouchable. However, a scandal is now engulfing the organization after at least four key officials were charged with fraud offenses.

News that something was potentially amiss began leaking out two weeks ago, when Russian publication Vedomosti reported on a court process in which the initials of the defendants appeared to coincide with officials at Rozcomnadzor.

The publication suspected that three men were involved; Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky, head of the legal department Boris Yedidin, and Alexander Veselchakov, who acts as an advisor to the head of the department monitoring radio frequencies.

The prosecution’s case indicated that the defendants were involved in “fraud committed by an organized group either on an especially large scale or entailing the deprivation of citizen’s rights.” Indeed, no further details were made available, with the head of Rozcomnadzor Alexander Zharov claiming he knew nothing about a criminal case and refusing to answer questions.

It later transpired that four employees had been charged with fraud, including Anastasiya Zvyagintseva, who acts as the general director of CRFC, an agency under the control of Rozcomnadzor.

According to Kommersant, Zvyagintseva’s involvement is at the core of the matter. She claims to have been forced to put “ghost employees” on the payroll, whose salaries were then paid to existing employees in order to increase their salaries.

The investigation into the scandal certainly runs deep. It’s reported that FSB officers have been spying on Rozcomnadzor officials for six months, listening to their phone conversations, monitoring their bank accounts, and even watching the ATM machines they used.

Local media reports indicate that the illegal salary scheme ran from 2012 until February 2017 and involved some 20 million rubles ($347,000) of illegal payments. These were allegedly used to retain ‘valuable’ employees when their regular salaries were not lucrative enough to keep them at the site-blocking body.

While Zvyagintseva has been released pending trial, Ampelonsky, Yedidin, and Veselchakov have been placed under house arrest by the Chertanovsky Court of Moscow until November 7.

Rozcomnadzor’s website is currently inaccessible.

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