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How Russia Is Stepping Up Its Campaign to Control the Internet

12 minute read

On March 10, photos and videos on Twitter were loading more slowly than usual for users in Russia. It was not a network fault or server error but a deliberate move by Russia’s state internet regulator Roskomnadzor to limit traffic to the social media site, in what experts say was the first public use of controversial new technology that the Russian authorities introduced after 2019. The regulator throttled the U.S. platform in retaliation for what it described as a failure to remove thousands of posts that “encourage underage suicide and contain child pornography as well as information about drug use.” The action came after Russian authorities had accused Twitter and other social networks in January of failing to delete posts urging children to take part in anti-government protests.

In January and February, Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation organized protests in dozens of cities on Facebook and Russian social network VKontakte against the arrest of its head, Alexei Navalny. Tens of thousands of people protested in more than 100 cities across the country demanding the release of the opposition figure whose YouTube investigation into alleged corruption by President Vladimir Putin received tens of millions of views upon its release. Navalny was sentenced on Feb. 2 to two years and eight months in prison for violating parole from an embezzlement case dating back to 2014 that he says was fabricated.

In response to the slowdown, Twitter said it did not support any “unlawful behaviour” and was “deeply concerned” by the regulator’s attempts to block online public conversation. But on March 16 Roskomnadzor gave a fresh warning that if Twitter refused to comply with its removal requests within a month, the regulator will consider blocking access to the social network in Russia outright. Roskomnadzor, a federal executive body founded in 2008, is responsible for ensuring the media and communications follow Russian laws, and issuing warnings to media sources that violate these laws.

Twitter has only 700,000 monthly active users in Russia, a fraction of the 68.7 million in the U.S. Despite its use by opposition politicians and journalists the Kremlin doesn’t consider it “the most dangerous” platform, says Andrei Soldatov, a Russian cyber expert. Experts say that the authorities used the Twitter slowdown to test technology that could be used to disrupt other, more popular social networks like Facebook, which has an estimated 23 million active monthly users in Russia.

The manner in which Twitter was throttled opens up a new front in the war between the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the open internet. For a decade now, the Kremlin has sought to control online information by censoring or removing content and blocking mobile Internet access completely. Now, authorities are aggressively taking the fight to social media platforms, which are dominated by American-owned companies. The government passed a law in December to increase fines on online platforms and Internet providers for failing to remove material calling for extremist activity, information about recreational drugs and child sex abuse; companies can now be fined between 10% to 20% of their yearly turnover in Russia for repeatedly failing to remove content. A law passed the same month gave Roskomnadzor the power to restrict or fully block websites that, according to officials, discriminate against Russian state media.

The widespread anti-government rallies earlier this year seem to have crossed a line for Putin. In recent months, the President has said tech companies are “competing with states” and that “society will collapse from the inside” if the Internet does not obey legal rules and society’s moral laws. As the government has ramped up its efforts to control what citizens can access online it also has several projects in the pipeline that experts say is part of a strategy to push foreign tech companies out of the Russian market completely. From April 1, Roskomnadzor requires tech companies selling smartphones in Russia to prompt users to download government-approved apps, including search engines, maps and payment systems.

The state “likely wants to see, and allow dissemination of, information that only reflects the official government point of view,” says Mike Tretyak, a partner with the Digital Rights Center law firm and expert with Roskomsvoboda, an NGO dedicated to digital rights. Could it be getting closer to succeeding?

Ten years of attempting to take control

For activists, this year looks like history repeating itself. Since mass demonstrations against electoral fraud began a decade ago—also organized by opposition figures using Facebook and VKontakte—the state has been developing a legal and technological toolkit to regulate online information, introducing content filters, block lists and fining or even jailing people for what they post online.

In 2012, Russia began blacklisting and forcing offline websites with the purported goal of protecting minors from harmful sites, including those that give details about how to commit suicide. In 2014 a law allowed Roskomnadzor to block access to media that calls for mass riots, extremist activities, or participation in unsanctioned mass public events. Government critics have been targeted; Navalny’s Live Journal blog, which published investigations about corruption in Russian politics, and other political opposition sites were blocked. (Roskomnadzor said they were banned for calling on people to illegally participate in mass events).

More recently, Russia has initiated regional network blackouts. In October 2018, the Russian government cut mobile data service in the Ingushetia region in southwestern Russia during political protests—the first such Internet outage in the country. In August 2019, the government blocked mobile Internet during protests in Moscow in what the Internet Protection Society, a digital rights group, said was the first state-mandated shutdown of this kind in the capital.

Then, in November 2019, the Kremlin made its most controversial move yet toward controlling the country’s Internet infrastructure with the so-called “sovereign Internet” law. A series of amendments to existing laws theoretically enabled the Russian authorities to isolate “RuNet”—the unofficial name for websites hosted in Russia and sites on Russian domain names— from the global web in vaguely defined times of crisis, giving the Russian authorities control over flows of data coming in and out of the country.

In an explanatory note about the new law, the Russian legislature said that it was created in light of the “aggressive nature of the U.S. National Cyber Security Strategy”, in which the U.S. threatened to punish countries including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea if they used cyber tools to “undermine” its economy and democracy, and steal its intellectual property. The Russia legislature claimed that Russia needs to take “protective measures to ensure the long term and stable operation of the Internet in Russia, and to increase the reliability of Russian internet resources.”

The “sovereign Internet” law required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to install Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment, which has been used by some countries, like China, for censorship. DPI equipment enables Russia to circumvent providers, automatically block content the government has banned and reroute internet traffic.

Russia’s major ISPs have now installed DPI equipment, according to Alena Epifanova, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations. But no one knows if or when Russia will be able to cut off its Internet from the global web. “The information about its implementation process and its scope is kept under wraps,” says Treyak. What’s certain is that Russia does not yet have the technological capacity to create a Chinese-style Great Firewall. Unlike China, which brought ISPs under state control early on, Russia is deeply integrated in the global web having enjoyed a largely free Internet for decades.

As the government has attempted to control information emerging from Russia, so has it tried to limit what is accessible in Russia from abroad. It has required search engines, including Google, to delete some results and social networks to store their user data on servers within Russia. Roskomnadzor hit Google with a fine of three million rubles ($41,000) for not removing content banned by the authorities in 2020. Roskomnadzor blocked LinkedIn in 2016 and fined Twitter and Facebook 4 million rubles ($53,000) in 2020 for failing to store user data in Russia.

Although these fines are pocket change to these huge corporations, some have buckled under Roskomnadzor’s threats to block them if they don’t comply with censorship orders. In 2018, Facebook-owned Instagram, which has 54 million users in Russia, complied with the regulator’s requests to remove posts connected to corruption allegations by Navalny. In a tweet Navalny accused Instagram of submitting to “illegal censorship orders”. “Shame on you Instagram!” he wrote.

YouTube, where Navalny and his group post most of their investigative videos, refused to comply. But now, Russia has upped the stakes. After Roskomnadzor threatened to prosecute social media sites for encouraging minors to join the January protests, the regulator said TikTok deleted 38% of its related content, while YouTube and Russian social media site VKontakte removed half.

This was not enough for the authorities. Earlier this month, Russia filed a lawsuit against Twitter and four other tech companies for allegedly failing to delete enough of such posts. Twitter, Google, Facebook each have three cases against them and for each violation they face a fine of up to 4 million roubles ($54,000). Cases have also been filed against TikTok and Telegram.

Russian apps for Russian Internet users

The authorities are now moving not just to reduce the influence of foreign tech companies but also to force them to promote Russian services — as with the new regulation mandating government-approved apps on all new smartphones. Apple has agreed to this, the first time the company will offer users the ability to install outside software on its devices at setup.

Tretyak, of the Roskomsvoboda digital rights group, says Apple’s compliance is understandable, a “mild” policy to protect Russian apps that are already used by the majority of Russians. But Soldatov says the idea is to discourage Russians from using foreign social networks such as TikTok, which many Russians were nudged into using during the Navalny protests. “It’s all about numbers. If you have 200,000 politically active people sharing videos about Navalny, that’s nothing. But if you have millions of ordinary Russians joining it, that’s a threat,” he says.

That helps to explains why Russian companies are building alternatives to foreign services, he says. Gazprom Media Holding, a subsidiary of state-energy giant Gazprom, is building an app similar to TikTok. A Russian Wikipedia is expected to launch in 2023 to ensure Russians have access to more “detailed and reliable” information about their country.

There is “a fine line between compliance with mild protectionist policies,” such as Apple listing Russian apps, and “compliance with removal of sensitive materials such as corruption allegations,” says Tretyak. “My belief is that each company should select its own behavioral strategy upon being approached by any government — not only the Russian one – possibly, according to its own internal moral code,” he says.

The government is also working on a bill that aims to give Russian security services total access to communications over encrypted connections and the ability to see what sites people visit. Epifanova says that it’s very likely the law will be passed, but it’s unlikely that tech companies will comply with the measure. They have rejected calls from law enforcement agencies around the world to provide access to encrypted information to assist in certain criminal investigations. The move is part of a “strategy to push out foreign tech companies while promoting Russian companies,” says Epifanova.

How digital rights activists are fighting back

Ordinary citizens in Russia are increasingly looking for ways to shrug off state Internet controls. The Moscow-based Roskomsvoboda and the Internet Protection Center are among the digital rights groups and activists dedicating resources to helping Russians get around new restrictions. Roskomsvoboda’s website features a list of all the online resources blocked in Russia, instructions on how to get around online bans, and news about the country’s Internet regulation.

The group also keeps a public list of reliable Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which allow users to gain access to blocked websites. However, the government has also required some popular providers to block access to blacklisted websites. Individual activists offer advice too; Vladislav Zdolnikov, an IT specialist, runs a Telegram channel that explains the latest developments in Russia’s internet regulation and recommends circumvention tools.

Free Internet activists also continue exploring new ways to democratize technology. On March 21 and 22, Roskomsvoboda ran a “hackathon,” Demhack 2, for 15 teams of developers across Russia. Their aim was “to find technical solutions aimed at protecting the rights and realizing the interests of citizens in the digital environment,” says Natalia Malysheva, the hackathon’s producer and Roskomsvoboda’s press secretary. There is no shortage of ideas. Roskomsvoboba says it receives about 100 proposals for each hackathon.

The judging panel of digital experts chose two winners on March 22 for prizes that included the chance to put their projects in front of investors. The first winner was Security Addon, an app that can prevent information on a device from being accessed if it is hacked or stolen. The second, the Deep Silent app, helps users download information to their phones even if the signal is limited, making it a useful resource if the internet is restricted.

As well as helping developers to build their technical solutions, Roskomsvoboda are building their own tools. Last year, they launched Censor Tracker, an extension for Google Chrome, that can help users to detect and bypass internet restrictions. In launching the extension tool, the group made it clear how high they believe the stakes now are. “We’re getting ready to confront the approaching sovereign Runet,” they wrote.


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