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The great Russian firewall: A dream of late Putinism

The Kremlin is now frantically looking for tools to strengthen its censorship of the internet, which is perceived as a ‘Trojan Horse’ of the American secret services. This ‘besieged fortress’ rhetoric has been accompanied by a flood of repressive laws, increasing surveillance, and attempts to establish state sovereignty over the Runet.

July 22, 2021 - Maria Domańska - Articles and Commentary

Political rally for free a internet in Moscow 2019. Photo: Elena Rostunova / Shutterstock

The last decade in Russia has been marked by an escalating campaign against freedom of speech on the internet. This campaign is one of the pillars of the Kremlin’s wider strategy to monopolise the political sphere and eliminate (actual or potential) resistance against this increasing authoritarianism. The authorities strive to criminalise the actions of independent groups, such as the political opposition, civic activists, independent media, non-governmental organisations and academia. Overall, the government hopes to insulate Russian society from Western influence. Their ultimate goal is to instil fear in citizens, who may self-censor in order to avoid denunciation. This closely resembles the practice widespread in the Soviet times. The growing quasi-Soviet narrative of Western orchestrated ‘conspiracies’ and ‘enemies’ that threaten Russia goes hand in hand with this mounting repression. Political orthodoxy is guarded by criminal laws and penalties for breaching them include imprisonment.

Despite increasingly stringent regulations, the internet has to a large extent remained a free and open source of information. It recently dethroned television as the primary source of information for Russian citizens.

Internet in Russia – According to the media market research agency Mediascope, 95.6 million people, or 78.1 per cent of Russia’s population over the age of 12, used the internet at least once a month last year. In recent years, there has been a steady increase in this number in all age groups. Among people up to 44 years of age, this percentage was over 90 per cent, whilst among the youngest group of respondents (12–24) it was almost 100 per cent. Mobile internet is especially popular with Russians.

According to a Levada Center poll conducted in September 2020, 81 per cent of Russians access information from the internet and social media. Around 54 per cent say that they trust these sources. With regards to television, these ratios amount to 69 per cent and 48 per cent respectively.

The opposition, social activists and independent journalists have learned to use the internet skilfully in order to break the information blockade imposed on traditional media. Their campaigns have helped to develop grassroots activism, publicise the results of anti-corruption investigations, and even mobilise the opposition electorate before elections. Online activity is both an alternative to (de facto banned) street activity and a channel to promote and coordinate street protests. According to polls by the independent Levada Center, internet users are much more pro-Western and critical of Putin’s regime than those respondents who mainly watch TV. This group are also more supportive of anti-government demonstrations. All of this is seen as a threat by the Kremlin, which is aware of decreasing public support. The country’s impoverished society is becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of economic development, a severely inefficient state bureaucracy and the stagnant nature of the regime.

Fear of ‘colour revolution’

Whilst the Runet was of keen interest to the secret services from the very beginning of its existence, no attempts were made to introduce large-scale institutionalised censorship for many years.

Despite this, everything changed in 2012. Mass demonstrations in Moscow in December 2011 against the rigging of parliamentary elections and Putin’s return to the presidency directly encouraged the government to tighten its control over the internet and domestic politics as a whole. For the first time, these protests were coordinated and publicised through social media on a societal scale. This development appeared similar to the ‘Arab Spring’, which was viewed by the Kremlin as a series of Western-backed state coups that were made possible by US technology.

Government officials have explicitly defined the internet as a battlefield of information and psychological warfare. This is viewed as an alternative to military action in the context of Russia’s ongoing confrontation with the West. According to the Kremlin, a key part of this struggle online has involved the promotion of content critical of the authorities by Russian internet users. As Vladimir Putin stated, “the internet emerged as a CIA project and is still being developed as such”. Indeed, the president himself never uses it except for participating in online meetings following the start of the pandemic.

The authorities’ attitude to the virtual sphere was exemplified by a statement made by presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov in May: “If the law regulates absolutely everything in our world, it should also regulate absolutely everything on the Internet”. It is unlikely that anyone has explained to Peskov that there are ‘worlds’ where the law does not regulate “absolutely everything”.

In search of a padlock and a bolt

The Russian government’s curbing of freedom of speech on the internet began in 2012. The first laws designed to further this goal seemed rational, as they referred to blocking websites that promoted child pornography, drugs, suicide and extremist content. Later on, these criteria would be regularly used as pretexts to intensify censorship with such websites. At the start, the most common justification used by the Kremlin was the protection of minors from harmful information.

A decade later, the authorities now often refer to the need to protect citizens from Western information warfare and its “interference in Russia’s internal affairs”. ‘Extremism’ has become a highly inclusive concept and is increasingly applied to any criticism of the government. It is also used to prevent citizens from using their constitutional right to peaceful protest. The government’s ability to block websites without a prior court ruling has become even more powerful. The government now also attack political opponents by issuing penalties for promoting so-called ‘fake news’, ‘slander’ and ‘disrespect of the authorities’. These regulations are implicitly concerned with anti-corruption investigations. The persecution of citizens who publicise the poor performance of the Russian health service regarding COVID-19 under the law on combatting ‘fake news’ offers a clear example of this phenomenon.

A notorious package of laws on ‘foreign agents’, which has been expanded since 2012, has also affected the work of independent media outlets. This year saw the adoption of a law restricting educational activity online. Among other things, this may potentially curb online educational programmes run by anti-regime academics dismissed from state universities and training for independent election monitors.

Foreign agents’ – In 2017, the provisions on ‘foreign agents’ were amended again, making it possible to impose this status on independent media. On the one hand, it aimed to discredit independent journalists in the eyes of society. On the other, the new laws were developed as a means of building a legal basis for harassing such figures. In the following years, the number of restrictions on the activities of ‘agents’ systematically increased, alongside penalties for non-compliance with stringent regulations (currently, this carries a maximum sentence of several years in prison). The informal effects of becoming an ‘agent’ include loss of funds from adverts and little to no channels of communication with state authorities. The blacklist of ‘agents’ includes Radio Svoboda and its affiliated editorial offices. After several years operating under these conditions, the station was forced to transfer some of its employees to Prague and Kyiv. The fate of its Moscow office remains uncertain. The Meduza portal, which replaced lenta.ru after it was taken over by the authorities, is still running as a result of crowdfunding. However, the editorial office of VTimes (created after the Vedomosti newspaper lost its independence) closed in mid-June. It is only a matter of time before other media groups critical of the authorities are added to this list of ‘agents’.

 In 2020 new obligations were imposed on social media owners and managers to remove ‘illegal’ content. This includes information on unauthorised street demonstrations. This move was undoubtedly a response to social media’s role in promoting anti-government sentiment among the public. So far, mainly Russian services, such as VKontakte or Odnoklassniki, have complied with these regulations. The possibility of blocking (or throttling) services such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube if they ‘discriminate’ against Russian entities has also been introduced into law. In practice, this is a tool designed to defend Kremlin-linked propagandists who spread disinformation. In the run-up to the 2021 parliamentary election, legal instruments have also appeared that allow for the arbitrary blocking of pre-election agitation on the internet.

The secret services are also intensifying their surveillance of internet users’ activity. Personal data protection is now essentially a fiction and law enforcement officers are often involved in the illegal data trade. Communication operators and owners of internet resources are obliged to store web content and make it available to the secret services without a court order. The most active state agencies involved in this censorship campaign are the Federal Security Service, the Ministry of the Interior, the Investigative Committee, the General Prosecutor’s Office, and the increasingly zealous Roskomnadzor agency (this organisation controls mass communication in the country). In addition to state institutions, pseudo-NGOs created and financed by the authorities are used to fight for the ‘orthodox’ Runet. The ultra-conservative League for a Safe Internet is particularly active and has law enforcement representatives sitting in its governing bodies. It monitors the web for ‘forbidden’ content and reports on internet users critical of the Kremlin.

Before 2020, criminal charges were brought against an average of several hundred people a year for various kinds of ‘illegal’ online activity (of which several dozen were sentenced to imprisonment). The courts also likely imposed tens of thousands of administrative penalties. According to the human rights organisation Agora, the intimidation of journalists, direct violence against internet activists, and the persecution of social media administrators increased noticeably last year. In 2021 a wave of repression has swept through Russia in response to mass protests in support of the imprisoned Alexei Navalny. This crackdown even affected those who simply reposted information about the demonstrations on social media (they are punished for “inciting illegal protests”).

At the same time, the personal data of law enforcement officers, secret service members and judges (including details of their property and financial assets) are subject to increased protection on the internet. These protective measures aim to hinder independent investigations into violations of the law by officials. Such violations include corruption offences and violence against peaceful demonstrators.

A sovereign dictatorship?

The so-called ‘Sovereign Internet Law’ from 2019 was a milestone in the Kremlin’s censorship campaign. Internet operators are now obliged to cooperate with law enforcement bodies in order to monitor the internet’s security and install “technical measures of security threat detection” on their network connections. These measures involve technology related to DPI or deep packet inspection, which enables its users to examine data packets in detail. This can provide the capability for blocking not only selected IP addresses but also specific content, as well as for throttling the flow of selected data or online traffic on specific routes

Officially, this law aims to create infrastructure and procedures that will allow for the centralised management of Runet should it be cut off from foreign servers as a result of American ‘cyber aggression’. However, the real motivation of Russia’s rulers stems from their domestic political needs. Moscow is now making sure that it has the tools needed to selectively disconnect the web and block or slow down certain online services in the event of internal instability. Experts have warned from the outset that there could be wider effects associated with these moves. Certainly, the accidental blocking of entire segments of the internet could jeopardise the smooth running of Russia’s financial and economic sphere.

In recent years, mobile internet has only been cut off on a regional scale. For example, this happened during protests in Ingushetia in 2018 and a year later in Moscow. The government also tried to combat online ‘anarchism’ by obtaining encryption keys for the Telegram app. However, its owner refused to cooperate with the Kremlin. As a result of this fight against Telegram around 20 million IP addresses were temporarily blocked. This naturally interfered with numerous websites and online services. Ultimately, the authorities officially admitted defeat last year.

The Kremlin’s first use of DPI on a Russia-wide scale involved Roskomnadzor’s attempt in March to throttle Twitter in response to the service’s refusal to remove ‘illegal’ content (essentially political discussions). Also, this move likely aimed to punish Twitter for boycotting a law from 2015, which ordered websites to transfer Russian users’ data to Russian servers. The law aims to facilitate the surveillance of internet users by domestic secret services. According to lawyers associated with digital rights watchdog Roskomsvoboda, the actions of Roskomnadzor against Twitter were illegal even under Russian law.

The main target of this campaign was probably not Twitter, which is used in Russia on a relatively small scale. Other services such as YouTube (about 80 million users), which hosts the investigations of Alexei Navalny’s team, are likely to be of more interest to the Kremlin. However, any threat to block YouTube seems unrealistic as the vast majority of its users access it for entertainment content. As a result, the blockade would only encourage scepticism among the relatively loyal electorate. Instead, the Kremlin’s main goal is to encourage fear and force the IT giants to cooperate with the Russian authorities.

Given that Runet is well integrated with the global network (in contrast to China, the Russian internet was initially developed rather spontaneously from below), the idea of a ‘great Russian firewall’ seems unobtainable. This is due to various technological challenges and political risks. The state’s experiment with Twitter once again revealed the weakness of its ‘solutions’. As in the case of Telegram, unexpected problems emerged in relation to the functioning of many other websites, including those owned by the government. Despite this attempt to attack the website, a connection to Twitter could be easily restored with the help of VPNs. However, Russian experts agree that the attack on Twitter marked a qualitatively new stage in the development of the Russian ‘digital dictatorship’.

The government will undoubtedly continue to test throttling techniques and content filtering in the coming years. As a result, it is likely that self-censorship among internet users will increase. The media landscape may also undergo severe changes due to the closing of some media outlets and the emergence of new platforms operating from abroad. The outcome of this tug-of-war for freedom of speech will largely depend on the reaction of multinational IT corporations to the Kremlin’s blackmail.

Such repressive actions will probably meet more and more cunning resistance from internet users, who will search for new tools and know-how to circumvent these obstacles. Whilst the Kremlin is unlikely to truly win this fight, a continued censorship campaign will certainly bring considerable profits for selected government-linked entities. These groups will continue to siphon off large sums of money from the state budget in order to develop new tools for controlling and infiltrating the virtual sphere.

Maria Domańska, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian domestic politics.

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