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Porn filter or prelude to censorship?

For FP's May/June "Sex Issue," I discussed how filtering systems billed as anti-pornography measures -- China's "Green Dam" for instance, were often used as a trojan horse for more controversial forms of web censorship:

China seems to be something of a trendsetter in this: Indonesia has used its particularly draconian anti-porn laws to censor websites advocating for gay rights. The Turkish government instituted a web-filtering system intended to protect minors last year, but it also blocked evolutionary biologist and famed atheist Richard Dawkins's website. The U.S. firm Blue Coat, which sells its filtering systems to Fortune 500 companies, admitted last year that Syria's regime uses the firm's technology to limit citizens' access to the Internet.

Russia seems to be the latest country to implement this method, with the parliament approving a law today billed as a crackdown on child pornography that could very easily be adapted to crack down on politically controversial material: 

The amendments to an existing information law are being promoted as a crackdown on child pornography, creating a federal register that would rule out websites carrying banned information and oblige site owners and providers to close down the sites.[...]

Russian newspapers said Wednesday the final version has specified a previously broad term of "harmful information", saying only child pornography, suicide how-to instructions and drugs propaganda can lead to website closure without a trial.

However, an expert on Russia's security services, Andrei Soldatov, said the bill would lead to creation of a mechanism for blocking foreign sites for the first time by forcing Internet providers to install special equipment.

"Clearly, it will be possible to use it not just against websites propagating pornography; the government will be able to use these instruments any way it wants," he wrote on his website Agentura.ru.

The Russian version of Wikipedia went dark yesterday to protest the law, in an echo of the U.S. backlash against the proposed SOPA legislation. Recently IPO'd Russian search giant Yandex has also protested the law. 

Whatever other rollbacks of democratic freedom have occurred in the Putin era, political dialogue on the Russian Internet -- particularly on blogging platform LiveJournal -- has remained relatively unfettered until now. The new move by the government may be a sign that authorities have seen one satirical viral video too many. Given that a Riot Grrl punk band called Pussy Riot, bikini-clad dissidents, and the often scantily-clad socialite Ksenia Sobchak have become central figures in Russia's activist culture, it's not hard to see how an anti-pornography law could be adapted to target political speech. 

In one amusing development, a Duma deputy has blamed the backlash to the internet law on the influence of the "pedophile lobby." And you thought Big Tobacco looked bad on a resume!

Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

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