The ongoing efforts of the Russian government to curtail its citizens’ access to information that hasn’t been preapproved by the Kremlin is now reaching into the past, according to a group that monitors the IP addresses of websites that have been blocked by censors in Russia. One of the latest victims is the site archive.org, which hosts the “Wayback Machine.”
A valuable tool for journalists and researchers, the Wayback Machine is an archive of websites that preserves them as they looked on various days in their history. Among its many functions is making it difficult for governments, businesses and other entities to retroactively remove content, change data or otherwise falsify the past.
It’s not the first time that the Roskomnadzor, Russia’s de facto media censor, has blocked archive.org. Earlier this summer, the site was reportedly blocked because it archived a page that contained “extremist” materials. This time around, it’s supposedly being blocked because it archived some videos related to a Syrian Islamist movement.
In fact, it’s hard to know exactly why the site was blocked. Archive.org’s store of Web page data runs to more than 400 billion pages. The odds that some of them are offensive, appalling or just generally awful is overwhelming, and picking one out of that enormous collection and using it to justify completely blocking the site seems disingenuous at best.
The Vladimir Putin-led Russian government likely has many reasons to object to content on the Wayback Machine that has little to do with protecting Russian citizens from extremist videos. For example, last week archive.org was one of the only sites that had a record of a news story that appeared on – then partially disappeared from – a Russian business website.
The piece appeared to document the extent of Russian casualties in the ongoing war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin insists Russia has no part in. The truth of the report has been questioned by both Russian and non-Russian sources, but the blocking of archive.org makes it a whole lot harder for Russian citizens to find evidence of an article challenging the government’s honesty.
The news that archive.org had been blocked comes as the Kremlin and major Internet firms, particularly social media sites, are struggling to come to agreement on how to deal with a law that has just taken effect in Russia.
It requires Internet firms with Russian users to store any personal information about them in servers that sit on Russian soil. The ostensible reason for the requirement is to protect Russian citizens from privacy invasions by foreign (read: U.S.) intelligence services. And in the years that have followed former CIA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of the U.S. surveillance state, concern about data protection can be easily justified.
However, given the Russian government’s ongoing efforts to crack down on interactions between its citizens and groups representing international non-governmental organizations and civil society groups, there is understandable concern that the actual intention of the Putin government is not to protect Russian citizens but to control them by limiting their access to information and identifying individuals who might challenge the Putin regime.
There is also considerable symbolism in the Putin regime denying its citizens access to a record of the past, since the practice has a long and sordid history in Moscow.