Hackers Push Back Against Russia’s Attempts To Control the Internet

Moscow's attempt to control the internet inside Russia has come unstuck following a campaign by hackers who have subverted a system of blacklisting sites deemed inappropriate.

Since Vladimir Putin's re-election in 2012, authorities have banned thousands of sites -- some for promoting "social ills," others for political dissent -- by inscribing their particulars on a blacklist and forcing internet service providers (ISPs) to block them.

But in recent weeks, activists seeking to push back against the crackdown have undermined the system by purchasing banned sites and inserting the particulars of perfectly legal web pages into their domain names.

Havoc ensued.

Last month, cash machines belonging to big state banks VTB and Sberbank stopped working. Major news sites and social media services were blocked and even Google became inaccessible.

"The Kremlin proved incapable of putting the internet under control by technical means. The only thing that partly works is intimidation of companies and users," said Andrei Soldatov, author of The Red Web, a book about Russia's online surveillance.

"To make intimidation more effective you need to make the rules more vague and complicated, to make almost everyone guilty by definition," he said.

With the blacklisting system looking vulnerable, the fear is that the authorities will retaliate by introducing an even harsher system of control on what web users can view.

Already they have created a new "whitelist" of sites that can never be blocked. And last week, parliament passed a law banning the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), used by many to access blocked content. Hundreds of people staged a protest march in Moscow at the weekend to object to online censorship.

The internet cat-and-mouse game started five years ago when the state telecoms watchdog, Roskomnadzor, was given broad powers to censor the Russian web via amendments to a law drafted to "protect children from information harming their health...

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