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Russia’s online censorship machine is no longer running smoothly



Not long ago, it looked as if the Kremlin’s control of the Russian Internet would just get tighter and tighter. But as events of recent days have shown, the country’s online censorship regime may be faltering.

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) dealt a blow to Russia’s extensive website-blocking regime by ruling, in four separate cases, that the blocking measures were excessive and violated the right to free expression. And just days before, Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor ended its largely ineffective two-year blockade of the messaging and microblogging app Telegram.

The ECHR polices the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been agreed among the 47 member states of the Council of Europe—including not only those in the EU, but also Russia, Turkey, and several non-EU Eastern European countries. When it rules that a country’s legal system has violated someone’s rights, the court tells the country to fix the problem that caused that violation. However, enforcement is often lacking.

Russia’s online censorship targets a range of content, including some that is banned across much of the world—notably child sexual abuse material—but also material that describes drug use or suicide methods in detail. It also cracks down on material it considers extremist and routinely goes after websites that it rules run afoul of the country’s so-called “gay propaganda law.” Roskomnadzor enforces the censorship by giving Internet service providers an ever-expanding list of websites they must block their customers from accessing.

One of the cases leading to this week’s ruling was brought about by former chess champion and current Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, whose website was blocked by Roskomnadzor in 2014 on the grounds of promoting mass disorder or “extremist speech.”

Going overboard

The ECHR said Roskomnadzor had gone overboard by forcing Internet service providers to block Kasparov’s entire site, rather than specifying pages that broke the law, so the site’s administrators could remove them or challenge the decision. It likened the blocking of the whole site to banning a newspaper or TV station, without “any legitimate aim.”

Another case involved a site that had been blocked because it showed people how to bypass Russian Internet censorship mechanisms. 

“The Court found that suppressing information about technology for accessing information online because it could incidentally aid access to extremist material was no different from trying to restrict access to printers and photocopiers because they could be used for reproducing such material,” it said. “In the absence of a narrowly defined and specific legal basis, the Court found that such a sweeping measure was arbitrary.”

Kasparov tweeted Tuesday that he was glad the court had decided in his favor, but he’d rather see the Council of Europe expel Russia.

Fortune has asked Roskomnadzor multiple times whether its site-blocking tactics will change in response to the ruling, but has received no response at the time of writing.

According to the U.K.-based free-expression NGO Article 19, the ruling’s timing is useful, given that the EU is currently considering stiffer regulation of online speech.

“The Court’s judgment is a decisive victory for freedom of expression online in Russia, and will set an important precedent on the safeguards against website blocking powers,” said senior director of law and policy Barbora Bukovska in a statement. “As EU discussions continue on the Digital Services Act and other issues such as filtering, the Court’s judgment provides an important reminder of the minimum safeguards that the law should provide when using blocking technology.”

Collateral damage

Another one of the cases decided Tuesday by the ECHR involved a site—Electronic Publishing News—that was blocked in 2012 not because it itself broke any law, but because it shared an Internet (IP) address with another website that did break Russia’s law against promoting drug use. (The same law once led to Wikipedia’s brief blockage in Russia.)

This overblocking is a recurring theme in Russian online censorship—and one that notably popped up at the start of the Telegram block in 2018.

Roskomnadzor tried to block Telegram because it refused to give the security services encryption keys that would allow the monitoring of private conversations. In order to dodge the blockade, Telegram started hosting its service on servers with IP addresses different from those listed on the blocking order.

As Telegram hopped from server to server, the censorship agency responded by trying to block every IP address it could associate with the app. It ended up blocking millions of IP addresses, accidentally knocking out Amazon’s and Google’s cloud services in Russia, along with the websites of universities and national media.

Despite the best efforts of erstwhile Roskomnadzor head Aleksandr Zharov, Telegram didn’t just survive; its Russian user numbers doubled to 30 million over the course of the attempted blockade, and senior Kremlin officials continue to use it. Late last week, Roskomnadzor—under new leadership since March—announced that it was lifting the Telegram ban.

The regulator suggested the change was the result of Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov’s “readiness…to counter terrorism and extremism.” Indeed, Durov said back in late 2018 that he was willing to provide terrorist suspects’ IP addresses and phone numbers if presented with a court order. However, Telegram reportedly still has not handed over those encryption keys or secret messages.

“To characterize the ban as a case study of failed Internet censorship is to put it lightly,” wrote Foreign Policy Centre research fellow Lincoln Pigman in a Monday postmortem. “Its resort to shock and awe saw millions of IP addresses blacklisted in the weeks following Telegram’s proscription. Yet Roskomnadzor succeeded only in causing sporadic outages while inflicting significant collateral damage.”

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Why surveying the American public can help us change capitalism



The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need for business leadership more clearly than ever. Americans increasingly trust business leaders to serve as societal leaders. And inequality and racial injustice have put a fine point on how urgent the challenge is. As a result, the stakeholder capitalism movement is gathering real momentum.

But changing capitalism isn’t easy. It needs new voices at the table, new narratives, and a better grasp of what value creation means. And it necessitates the development of new systems for defining what drives business success, for gathering data, and for measuring and reporting performance. 

JUST Capital has carved out a unique role in this transition by providing a credible and unbiased assessment of how America’s largest corporations are doing on the stakeholder criteria of greatest importance to the public, as well as the tools, products, and programs that actually drive change. 

As last Saturday’s Fortune op-ed illustrates, our approach is not without its critics. We welcome such feedback and see our strategy—like stakeholder capitalism itself—as a work in progress. One thing that’s abundantly clear is that building a stakeholder-led economy is not a competition. It’s a movement, with complementary parts, including CEOs and business leaders, investors, workers, civil society, policymakers, and more. 

The B Corp initiative championed by op-ed author Christopher Marquis is certainly an excellent option for any business wishing to commit to a stakeholder-based pathway. But the B Corp route doesn’t work for every company. Indeed, this is the point. No single initiative, organization, or project can upend shareholder primacy. It will take the entire ecosystem, working together, to drive real change. 

For our system to evolve, we first must rethink what business leadership means. Focusing on short-term returns to shareholders or measuring success solely on the P&L statement is clearly no longer enough. But how else might we measure it? To answer this, JUST Capital turns to the American people.

(Read, “In a time of crisis, Americans send a clear message to Corporate America: Focus on workers.”)

It’s vital that the public feels that stakeholder capitalism reflects their priorities because a movement isn’t credible without real people’s values. It isn’t a perfect science, but by partnering with the best public opinion research groups to reach a representative sampling of Americans, we feel confident that we are capturing many of the key issues. We rarely use polling to assess the efficacy of corporate practices. Instead, our polling ensures we stay rooted in the experiences of everyday people, rather than dealing in academic hypotheticals. 

Case in point: For the fifth year in a row, Americans said the most important action a company can take is to pay a fair and livable wage. With tens of millions of hardworking people still reliant on food stamps to feed their families, this makes sense. But without our survey work, it might not have been so apparent. This year, we’ve also used polling to get the public’s guidance on how companies should be responding to COVID-19, racial equity, and our democratic processes. 

When it comes to accurately measuring corporate stakeholder performance, the challenges are many and varied. 

One is getting to the truth on how companies are performing, as opposed to what they’re saying. For many of the issues we’re trying to measure, there is no definitive data source and no standardized way of reporting, which means you have to use proxies or estimates, to piece together the best possible analysis. We try to tell a balanced story, but it’s an inherently messy, inefficient process.

Another issue is relativity. Fundamentally, we’re assessing company performance relative to one another. We find the best players on the field, rather than assess where the field is going. Which is why the work of organizations like B Lab, which are working to move the whole field, is so valuable. Our work also doesn’t address every societal challenge. Overall, rankings are a blunt tool. The fact is that company stakeholder performance, like company financial performance, is uneven. 

Finally, there is the challenge of actually driving change. We see the work we do as a resource for the broader movement. It shed light on what companies actually did in the early days of COVID-19. It creates investment products that can drive capital toward companies that are better performers. It investigates the correlation between top performers and market performance. And it drives transparency and supports change, like advancing racial equity in the workplace. Recently we launched a new effort to ask CEOs to assess the financial health and security of their workers, because in this time, it’s no longer appropriate for CEOs to not have this information. 

Ultimately, we believe the market will drive toward corporate stakeholder performance, as more and more people seek to buy from, invest in, work for, and otherwise support those companies that do right by their stakeholders. But this can only happen with clarity on what we’re driving toward, and that’s the work of JUST Capital and others in the coming years.

Martin Whittaker is the CEO of JUST Capital. Alison Omens is the chief strategy officer of JUST Capital.

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