Temporary block on LiveJournal in Russia exemplifies overblocking

A regional Russian Internet service provider temporarily blocked the entire Russian LiveJournal site in response to a court order to block one blog on the platform. The incident illustrates the probability of overblocking, especially when targeting an IP address. Moreover, a new law in Russia allows the government to blacklist websites containing pornography, drug advertisements or suicide promotion, opening up the possibility for other similar incidents. Previous instances of regional filtering have similarly blacked out entire platforms like LiveJournal or YouTube in a particular region of the country.

Netis Telekom, a local ISP in the Yaroslavl region northeast of Moscow, followed the instructions of a regional court to shut off access to a neo-Nazi blog hosted on LiveJournal for violating Russia’s laws on extremism. According to Global Voices, this particular blog has been on the government’s radar since 2009, when it appeared on the federal Justice Ministry’s "list of extremist materials."

A Yaroslavl prosecutor told reporters that the ISP went beyond the court order, which only required filtering or blocking a specific blog, not the entire platform. However, the court order instructed the ISP to block the blog using its IP address. All LiveJournal blogs share the same IP address, so fulfilling the order resulted in blocking the entire platform in Yaroslavl, a city of about 600,000 people. Service to Livejournal, the most popular blogging platform in Russia, was later restored.

IP blocking is a form of technical filtering that can result in overblocking by preventing access to hundreds or thousands of acceptable websites that happen to be hosted on the same IP address as a single blocked site. In the past, other ISPs in Russia have temporarily blocked entire platforms when asked by a court to ban content on part of the site. In July 2010, a regional court in Ingushetia, located in the Caucasus region of Russia, required a local ISP to block LiveJournal due to extremist materials found on some blogs. Likewise, a local court in the far east region of Komsomolsk-on-Amur asked Rosnet, a local ISP, to ban YouTube because it wanted extremist material on the website blocked.

In the Yaroslavl case, it is unclear why the court order specified an IP address, though Anton Nossik, a popular blogger and head of the company that owns LiveJournal, highlighted officials’ technological illiteracy as the primary culprit.

This decision was meted out by people who are incapable of assessing its nature and consequences. This problem could be solved by raising the technological literacy of court officials and prosecutors, but there is no incentive to do so because our judges and public prosecutors are the same cops who wouldn't be able to pass their own re-accreditation.

Whether or not the temporary shutdown is related to a new law in Russia that makes it easier to block websites that contain objectionable material, as a spokesman for LiveJournal U.S. suggested, the law may make cases of overblocking more common. The new Internet blacklist law targets websites that contain child pornography, promote drugs or promote suicide, allowing the government to blacklist and shut down those sites. However, critics say the the law could be a gateway for wider Internet censorship. LiveJournal in Russia was one of several websites to protest the blacklist law when it was being considered by the Duma, Russia’s parliament.