MOSCOW – Wikipedia on Tuesday shut down its Russian-language site (ru.wikipedia.org) for 24 hours to protest a bill that would give the Russian government sweeping powers to blacklist certain sites, the latest in a flurry of legislation that appears aimed at neutering a growing opposition movement that has protested President Vladimir Putin's rule.
Lawmakers say the bill, which is to be reviewed in parliament Tuesday, is designed to protect children. Supporters say it enables the government to block sites that show child pornography, promote teen suicide, or spread information about drugs. But critics argue it gives too wide a scope for the government to subjectively select which sites to blacklist.
The Kremlin has made no public comment on the bill, but lawmakers from Putin's party were among those who wrote the legislation, and it is likely to pass. It follows other recent laws that have targeted groups Putin views as rivals or bad influences: A law imposing heavy fines for protesters was quickly pushed through parliament in June, and a bill that would label NGOs receiving foreign aid as "foreign agents" was approved just last week.
Russia's Internet has until now been relatively unrestrained by government restrictions or firewalls. While anti-government activists or media have often been the victims of hacking attempts in recent years, the government has largely left the Internet an unregulated space for political discussion.
So the new bill has provoked a flurry of protest online, with many expressing support for Wikipedia's actions. Three of the top Twitter hash tags in Russia on Tuesday were "RuWikiBlackout," "Wikipedia," and "Law No. 89417-6," all of which refer to the legislation.
Human rights activists and opposition leaders also loudly criticized the bill. The Presidential Council of Human Rights urged parliament not to pass the legislation in its current state.
Others were more skeptical about the actual restrictive power of the law, asserting that it was designed to test the Russian public's reaction and serve as a warning against anti-government activity online.
Anton Nossik, media director of Internet holding company SUP, which runs Russia's most popular blogging platform, wrote that there "won't be any immediate consequences if this law is passed."
But, he added, "the reality is that they are testing to see how to adopt such measures in the future ... For the past 12 years I was sure that the Russian government was smart enough not to censor the Internet. Now they are scattering any doubt that Russia is on the path of government regulation that is senseless and ruthless," he wrote.
Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger, wrote in his blog that the legislation underscored the Kremlin's desperation to win over an Internet-savvy public. According to Navalny, the legislation is yet another attempt by the government to win the "ideological struggle on the Internet."
Russians in large cities have become accustomed to unfettered access to the Internet. In an AP-GfK poll released in June, only 10 percent of those polled in Moscow said they did not use the internet. Internet use throughout the country is on the rise, with 38 percent of Russians now using the Internet daily, up from 22 percent just two years ago, according to The Public Opinion Foundation.
Wikipedia's Russian-language site encouraged users to spread the word about the law and contact their representatives in parliament to lobby against it. The protest comes after a similar shutdown of the English-language site in January to protest the anti-pirating Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. Congress.