If you’re looking for no-holds-barred Internet discussion, Reddit is a good place to start. Along with threads discussing virtually every subject known to man—both SFW and NSFW—the site also hosts “ask me anything” (AMA) discussions, allowing redditors to engage in lively discussion with celebrities, technology experts, and revolutionaries alike.
In Russia, however, it seems that Reddit user “rsocfan” went a little far, because the country’s media oversight and censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, has blocked a number of pages for his how-to discussions about growing Psilocybe mushrooms.
Rules and Regulations
Russia isn’t exactly known for accepting non-conformist Internet opinions. As noted by the BBC, for example, any bloggers in Russia with more than 3,000 followers must register with the government and follow the same rules as mass media outlets. The Washington Post describes this situation faced by bloggers “in theoretical violation of the law at all times”; popular Russian bloggers live in fear that they could potentially face punishment if authorities decide to crack down on them. And in recent months, Roskomnadzor has been busy issuing stern warnings to sites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter if they don’t comply with Russian data-handling laws.
Now Reddit is in the crosshairs thanks to a post made two years ago about growing illegal drugs. In a recent Reddit thread—”TIFU by getting Reddit banned in Russia” in the TIFU (Today I F—ed Up) subreddit—original poster rsocfan explains how he got Reddit banned in Russia. He had made the post about mushrooms to see how Roskomnadzor would respond, since the agency technically has the authority to block any website without court approval.
And while Roskomnadzor was slow to move, the media oversight agency eventually caught up, read the post, and demanded that Reddit admins block the offending content for Russian users.
When Roskomnadzor received no immediate response from Reddit, the agency banned large sections of the site. Many Russians were unable to access Reddit all together, because approximately one third of the country’s ISPs can’t properly filter content blocks based on the HTTPS protocol.
This prompted a response from the Reddit site administrators, who did not want their Russian users to lose access to their site. A day after the blacklist began, it was lifted when the site admins contacted Roskomnadzor and agreed to their terms. The offending post is now blocked for users in Russia.
Original poster rsocfan loves the irony of the whole incident. The offending thread hadn’t attracted much interest when he first posted it, but this entire censorship incident thrust it into the spotlight. In effect, Roskomnadzor drew attention to the very thing it was trying to hide!
Over the past few years, Roskomnadzor has been slowly chipping away at citizen Internet freedoms by mandating blogger registrations, along with making site owners responsible for anything posted in the comments sections of their websites by other users. Some organizations have closed their forums all together, while others have hired moderators to sniff out any “extremist” content.
The agency has also taken several bloggers to court—Alexey Navalny had his blog blocked and was handed a suspended sentence for calling a “protest rally”, triggering a response from the Attorney General’s Office that ordered Roskomnadzor to ban his blog and start legal proceedings.
But the Russian government isn’t the only large organization curating Reddit content. As noted by a recent article in The Verge, the site itself is also taking a harder line with forums deemed offensive or inappropriate. In July, Reddit announced that specific communities which existed “solely to annoy” would no longer be searchable and would not generate any revenue for the company.
Now, CEO Steve Huffman says they’re banning the most offensive of these forums and quarantining others that “generally make Reddit worse for everyone else.”
So what’s the difference here? If Reddit, like Russia, gets to decide what users can access, aren’t they exercising some powers of censorship, too? Huffman’s take on the subject sheds some light: “banning is like capital punishment. We take banning very seriously, which is why it takes so long for us to do it.”
Contrast this with Roskomnadzor, which looks to ban users and posts for even small infractions and without the need for outside approval. It’s quite apparent that Reddit acts when necessary—for the greater good—while many government agencies act seem to act at random.
Bottom line? If you’re in Russia and live on Reddit, get a VPN or other proxy gateway since it’s a safe bet Roskomnadzor won’t be signing up for an AMA any time soon.