Russia launches “Oculus” tool to monitor banned information online

A new AI-driven system will help Russia’s censorship machine to deal with an “avalanche-like” increase in online information banned under the country’s laws, including pro-Ukraine messaging and LGBT content.

Russia’s censors have announced a new automated system called Oculus to search the internet for photo and video content that is banned under Russian law, including the so-called “LGBT propaganda” and mentions of war in Ukraine.

The system was launched by the Main Radio Frequency Center, an entity overseen by Russia’s federal censorship agency Roskomnadzor, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency.

In a statement shared with Interfax, the center said Oculus “automatically detects violations such as extremism, calls for illegal assemblies, suicide, content that promotes drugs, and LGBT propaganda.”

It said it can recognize images and symbols, illegal scenes and actions, and is able to analyze text in photos and videos. Authorities tested Oculus in December, and started its integration into existing monitoring systems in January, the statement said.

Prior to that, human operators monitored the internet for banned content, processing on average 106 illegal images and 101 illegal videos per day. By comparison, Oculus is touted as capable of analyzing 200,000 images daily, at a speed of about three seconds per image.

The system is said to have cost about $783,000 to develop.

Censors in overdrive

Censors said that a new system was necessary because of an “avalanche-like” growth in what Russian authorities deem to be false or damaging information following Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Any mention of war is banned in Russia, which has sent its censorship apparatus into an overdrive last year. The Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation ordered to block or remove 102,600 internet sources in 2022, as opposed to 7,200 in 2021, according to Interfax.

The center said that “anti-Russian” visual content proliferated because of a greater emotional impression it generated and therefore was of particular concern. The authorities also blamed foreign actors for “provocations” and said they needed to respond.

In addition to officially banned information, Russian authorities seek to leverage their online tools to censor negative depictions of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A leak earlier this month revealed that Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, blocked search results that associated Putin with words like “bald” and terms such as “bunker grandfather” and “master thief.”

Last year, a Russian alternative to Wikipedia called Runiversalis was also launched in Russia to present information free of the “LGBT lobby” and mentions of the war in Ukraine.

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