Business Politics Tech 21 June 2021

Russia proposes state control over access to porn websites

The Russian agency responsible for regulating online content is proposing to limit access to pornography by making it available exclusively via state-run services. The authorities have long tried to combat pornography, but their efforts have met little success.

  • Newspaper Kommersant published an article Wednesday about watchdog Roskomnadzor’s plans to limit access to pornography. The idea is to make adult content available exclusively through state websites — blocking access for minors.
  • The plan is to divide pornography into ‘lawful’ and ‘unlawful’ content, according to Kommersant. However, it’s not obvious how these categories will be defined.
  • Media reports suggested that child porn and ‘offensive’ porn will be deemed unlawful (Roskomnadzor, for example, regards rape depictions as ‘offensive’). Lawful content would include “naturalistic images” of contacts between mutually consenting adults. The state-provided service would only permit access to lawful content.
  • There is much that is not clear about how this would work in practice — particularly given that many sites host content that falls into both categories.
  • At present, individuals are not forbidden from looking at porn in Russia. However, attempting to distribute pornographic material — even via a repost on social media — can lead to legal action. In theory, the offense can be punished with a prison term, but, in practice, suspended sentences are far more common.
  • The world’s leading porn sites, YouPorn and PornHub, were blocked in Russia for about six months in 2016 and 2017. However, Russians still accessed them using VPN. Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte, allows access to material from PornHub. However, this method is not without peril: a few years ago a bot appeared that enabled users to identify which of their friends were signed up to PornHub. In the first week of the pandemic in March 2020, PornHub reported a 1.5-fold spike in traffic from Russia (a trend replicated in many other countries).
  • It’s hard to find convincing figures about the size of the audience for porn sites in Russia. Market research company Mediascope put it at 11 percent of the adult population in 2018. For comparison, 87 percent of men and 28.5 percent of women in the U.S. are reckoned to view pornography (we can only guess why there is such a huge difference). Russia’s most popular porn site is French site Xvideos.

Why the world should care: It’s not yet clear how far Roskomnadzor is prepared to go in its battle against porn, nor whether it has influential backers. But if this does happen, it means new content will shift to the darknet or Telegram channels — and Russians will have another reason to install a VPN.