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The Kremlin and the Internet

While the Russian regime is busy with its campaign across the world wide web, it seems to have overreached at home.

April 20, 2018 - Paulina Siegień - Hot TopicsInterviews

Photo: Kecko (cc) www.flickr.com

On the international stage another week passes where Russia is dealing with their involvement in the conflict in Syria and deflecting accusations of attempting to poison the former GRU agent Sergei Skripal on British soil. Meanwhile there has been a serious development in their internal politics. Everything is pointing to a new campaign orchestrated by the Russian regime aimed at curtailing the internet. This is a battle that has been waged for a couple of years with limited success.

Telegram is an internet communicator created by Pavel Durov. He is a Russian entrepreneur who used to be known for creating the social media service Vkontakte, one of the few in the world that survived the competition with Facebook on a local level. Durov has not been the head of Vkontakte since he declined sharing user information with the state in 2014. After he was forced to sell the platform, he then decided to leave Russia. In exile he created Telegram, an internet based communicator that through its functionality attracted millions of users around the world and many within Russia itself.

When Russian services requested the encryption key for reading the correspondence of Telegram users Durov declined yet again. Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal executive body responsible for censorship in media and telecommunications, turned to the courts which agreed to block Telegram on Russian soil. As a result Roskomnadzor blocked millions of IP addresses (some figures point to 18.5 million!), Google and Amazon as well, as it was assumed Telegram would use them to bypass the blockade. These restrictions interrupted the activities of hundreds of net based services – from online games to news sites and internet stores. Hundreds of businessmen are complaining about significant financial losses inflicted by the blockade and have announced legal action against Roskomnadzor. As an act of vengeance, the agency’s website was attacked by hackers. In the last few days it seems as if Russia is embroiled in an internet war. A smaller group of activists in Kaliningrad threw paper planes, which is in the logo of Telegram, at the local office of Roskomnadzor. The Press Secretary of the Kremlin Dmitry Peskov has also spoken on the matter: “There is no reason to play hide and seek or tag. Roskomnadzor is just following the decisions of the courts”.

Telegram still functions in Russia, but not without technical difficulties.

The Russian war with the internet has been going on for years. Its course has been described in an excellent book written by journalists Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov under the title: “The Red Web: the Kremlin’ war on the Internet”.

New Eastern Europe has asked one of its co-authors Irina Borogan, for a short commentary to what the blockade of Telegram in Russia means and its consequences.

PAULINA SIEGIEŃ: The first question is actually a simple one – what for!? Why is it that Telegram is so dangerous that Roskomnadzor ended up focusing all its effort to block it?

IRINA BOROGAN: Durov is an old enemy of Roskomnadzor. In 2011 he refused to close a protest group on Vkontakte [connected to the mass protests in Moscow after the 2011/2012 election to the Duma – ed.] and after Maidan he publicly declared he wouldn’t hand over user data to the secret services. Telegram does not pose any real threat, but it keeps on declining cooperate with FSB and Roskomnadzor in public.

Could this be a personal matter between the regime and Durov?

Not a personal matter, no. Durov is simply punished because he is the only Russian businessman who put dared to put the interests of the customers above the interests of the Kremlin. Instead of following any arrangements with the Kremlin, he publicly and openly defies it.

Many people are beginning to wonder how other social networks function in Russia? Does Facebook Messenger transfer its user information to the secret services, since it works without any issues?

No, it is not quite like that. Other communicators are also under threat of being blocked because of refusing to heed the Kremlin’s orders. This was clear in a recent interview with the head of Roskomnadzor – Aleksandr Zharov, for Izviestia.ru.  Facebook also refused all requests for user information. So far the blocking is selective.

Could the Roskomnadzor’s attack on Telegram destroy the so called Runet, as in the Russian language part of the internet? Is it even possible to effectively block access to the internet?

If it is possible or not, that I don’t know. But I doubt it. People will use VPN’s and proxies. So far instead of disrupting Telegram, they have mostly blocked several other sites. It is clear that after blocking millions of IP addresses, Runet will be affected.

If such massive resources were pulled together to block Telegram, it would seem we are in for another battle between the regime and the internet? Could Russia be heading towards a Chinese styled approach in controlling the web?

Yes, this attack on internet freedoms in Russia is on a new level. Earlier, the state was wary of blocking entire platforms. Only LinkedIn was blocked as an exercise, as it wasn’t too popular in Russia anyway. Few even seemed to notice. It is likely that Facebook and YouTube are next in line.

The Sino-Russian cooperation over internet censorship is now a thing of the past.
From what I understand, FSB went against buying their equipment and technology, as there was no possibility to alter the way content was filtered in Russia. The secret services were also worried these devices would have some form of spyware installed. This is a paradox, as the spy-mania of the FSB worked in favor of the freedom of the internet for once.

How is it that Russia is so successful with the internet in its foreign agenda – hacker attacks, spreading pro-Russian propaganda, Russian trolls, etc., and has such difficulties on the home front?   

 The internet was created for the free flow of information. It is its most basic function. The Kremlin skillfully uses this to spread its propaganda around the world. However, it was not created for censorship and this is why it fails in its efforts, even though they still try!

When I read the instructions posted on Russian sites on how to bypass blockades and protect data, I get the impression that they are at such an advanced level hard to reach for the “average European”. It seems as if all these efforts by the Kremlin to suppress the web, only lead to an unprecedented rise in IT skills among its Russian users.

Exactly! In 2012 no one thought of stuff such as VPN or Tor. Today Russians are the biggest group of Tor users. All of this started very unexpectedly and amusingly after a blockade of specific torrent libraries and pornographic content.

Paulina Siegień is a journalist with Gazeta Wyborcza based in Gdańsk. She writes about Polish-Russian neighborhood, the Kaliningrad Oblast and general Russian developments.



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