GitHub is slowly navigating the tricky waters of Internet censorship in Russia, using its own platform to track how it’s doing it in an effort to remain transparent, but also agreeing to block pages that the regulator says offend content regulations.
“We have since blocked access within the Russian Federation to the specific content which was flagged as prohibited by law within the Russian Federation, and are working to get GitHub reinstated,” the company says. It cites its Terms of Service section A8 to further elaborate: “You may not use the Service for any illegal or unauthorized purpose. You must not, in the use of the Service, violate any laws in your jurisdiction (including but not limited to copyright or trademark laws).”
The whole of GitHub was blocked in Russia earlier this week after the Russian information regulator, Roskomnadzor, said that GitHub was publishing illegal content — specifically, someone had uploaded pages that referred to methods for committing suicide. And because of the HTTPS setup of GitHub, the regulator’s order to ISPs to block resulted in a full-site shutdown.
Now, GitHub has set up a GitHub repository, where it will provide links to violation notices and other statements.
At the same time, it will move ahead with actually complying with the regulator, geoblocking the specific content in question so that the rest of GitHub’s services can continue uninterrupted in the country.
Blocking specific pages is the same route that sites like YouTube — which was also blocked over suicide-related content — have taken in order to remain online overall in Russia.
Others, like Facebook and Twitter, have had a very mixed response to such requests. In some countries the services are not accessible (or sporadically so) unless you have a private VPN tunnel because the companies have refused to remove offending material. In others, such as France, Twitter has actually complied with some requests from governments when it has involved anti-Semitism.
Important to note that GitHub’s compliance comes with some resistance.
“Although we may not always agree with the choices the Russian government has made, we respect the country’s sovereignty and recognize that Russians may have different cultural sensitivities,” the company notes. “We are concerned about Internet censorship, and believe that transparency is a virtue. By posting the notices here, we can better inform the public about what content is being withheld from GitHub, and why. We post takedown notices here to document their potential to chill speech.”
It goes on to note that a takedown doesn’t mean it agrees with the decision.
A notice’s appearance in the respository, it says, “only means that we received the notice on the indicated date. It does not mean … the Takedown Unlawful or Wrong. It does not mean That the User IDENTIFIED in the Notice has done anything Wrong. We post the notices only for informational purposes. We do not make or imply any judgment about the merit of the claims they make. You can draw your own conclusions.”
The concern with Russia’s censorship laws, which were first brought into force in 2012, is that they not only violate freedom of speech, but that they can be abused to effectively silence people who are speaking out against the state.
This particular note, describing methods of suicide, is an interesting example of where lines get very blurry. It seems to be written as (particularly cynical and maybe not very funny) satire — biting your tongue is one of the methods — but other options include joining the military, or getting a good gun, which you might find if you know the right policeman. Perhaps it’s violating rules on inappropriate suicide content, but it is also mocking authority.
GitHub remains blocked at the time of writing, although this move should be another step towards getting that cleared up.