LiveJournal Goes to Russia

As December came to an end, people started noticing that LiveJournal’s servers were now in Moscow. Checking geolocation sites confirmed it for me on December 29. It was a shock to see that my own journal was now hosted in Russia.

This is just the latest step in a long death spiral for LiveJournal. In 2007, SUP, a Russian media company, acquired LiveJournal. Soon the overwhelming majority of its users were Russians. That was a better time for Russia than today; dissenting speech was never completely safe, but LiveJournal provided a platform where people could speak their minds with a certain amount of safety.

LiveJournal’s non-Cyrillic servers remained in San Francisco, providing a level of safety from Russian censorship. Now that safety is gone. Russia in 2016 is a more dangerous place to speak out than it was in 2007. There are already reports of account blocking at the request of the Prosecutor General. LiveJournal blogger Alexei Kungurov was sent to jail for criticizing Russia’s bombing of Syria, and someone allegedly “hacked” his account. Curiously, his journal is still up; according to PEN, his wife is maintaining it. That’s impressive courage.

People are packing up and getting ready to abandon LiveJournal for Dreamwidth, a similar service with no Russian ties. Its user interface is familiar, since it’s based on an earlier version of LiveJournal’s software. Dreamwidth claimed a sudden increase in interest, with over 100,000 new accounts in the last ten days of 2016. That would be roundoff error for Facebook, but it’s a mass exodus on LiveJournal’s scale. Dreamwidth says that many of the new users are from Russia and Ukraine.

Some people are deleting their existing posts and accounts in protest. Censoring yourself before they can censor you doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; why not use your account to speak out against Russian censorship and persecution of dissidents? But if people just want a complete break with LJ, I understand that. Many are keeping a foot on each side, mirroring their LJ and DW posts.

For many years, LiveJournal had some serious advantages over the big social media sites. It didn’t play games with people’s feeds, but just displayed everything in chronological order. It didn’t even have “likes” until recently, when it implemented them very badly. It didn’t chop people’s posts down to the first few lines, unless the authors chose to insert cut tags. It was a place for conversations and communities. Maybe that’s not what people want any more, but LiveJournal kept a small but passionate following.

Exporting your LiveJournal

Many people are just concerned that the move is a prelude to LiveJournal’s disappearance. There are various tools for exporting LiveJournal entries. ArchiveTeam lists some export tools. I tried XJournal for OS X and found that it doesn’t export entries. A simple approach is to use LiveJournal’s export tool to create an XML archive, but it only lets you export a month at a time. I wrote some code myself several years ago, but it’s not in a very usable state.

Some backup methods require you to give your LiveJournal password to a third-party site. You should never do this.

Why does it matter?

Quite a few people have trouble understanding why the move matters. SUP, they argue, was already a Russian company, even if it kept its non-Cyrillic servers in the US. Russia probably wouldn’t have trouble demanding information from SUP’s US servers. The US government doesn’t have a great record itself for keeping its hands out of servers. And of course there’s the old standby, “I don’t have anything to hide,” from people who presumably never use locked posts.

It matters, for very good reasons. The first is the circumstances. SUP had staked its continuing support of American and Western European users on the separation of its Russian and non-Russian operations. It broke its promise stealthily, moving its servers to Russia with no announcement. People gathered the information from rumors and Russian-language sites. I was skeptical myself until I saw the geolocation information. SUP sneaked the move past its users and no longer merits any trust.

The most recent word from LiveJournal News was back on November 1, when they gushed about their badly implemented “Like” button. LiveJournal hasn’t said a word about the move, as far as I can tell. It could disappear completely at any time, without any warning or explanation.

Second, however much surveillance the US government does, it doesn’t normally shut down online accounts and lock their authors away for criticizing the government. Russia does. Americans who don’t travel to Russia are safe from arrest, but the government’s record of shutting dissident accounts down will certainly have a chilling effect. LiveJournal already had a history of terminating accounts for capricious reasons, but it’s just going to get worse.

Some people have argued that California’s privacy laws had deterred the Russian government from snooping them. I find this unlikely. The Obama administration claims the authority to snoop servers in foreign countries without a warrant. I’m sure Russia has its equivalent to our National Security Letters, which impose gag orders on people required to provide information.

At the same time, we shouldn’t succumb to “The Russians Are Coming” paranoia. Polls show that half of Democrats think it’s at least likely that Russia tampered with vote tallies, even though there’s zero evidence for the claim. The Washington Post ran a story claiming Russia had penetrated the US power grid; they finally admitted that the “penetration” consisted of malware of Russian design that had gotten onto one laptop which wasn’t connected to the grid. Russia is just an authoritarian state that looks impressive on the Mercator projection. Having our journals stored on any authoritarian state’s territory would be bad.

Dreamwidth offers everything LiveJournal once did, and LiveJournal can no longer be trusted.

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Gary McGath

I am a freelance writer, author of the books _Files that Last_ and _Tomorrow's Songs Today_, with a strong background in software development, file formats, and digital preservation.

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