Russian President Vladimir Putin on 1 May signed the controversial sovereign internet bill into law. It will come into force 1 November despite the concern, confusion and even ridicule on show during its State Duma readings. The law, still scant on detail, envisions handing much more power over the online world to the government, creating a system that would not only allow state authorities to control information flows across the country but isolate Russia’s internet from the rest of the world in times of crisis.
“The main thing is to be secure from aggressive actions from abroad”, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in February. Officially the law is a move to protect internet access should another country seek to disconnect Russia from the world wide web (exactly how this would be done is yet to be explained). Supporters cite the new United States National Cybersecurity Strategy and Internet Research Agency cyber attack as evidence of its necessity. In reality the law is an escalation in censorship at least seven years in the making.
Out with the old…
The role of the internet in Russian society has been a changing one; from Runet’s early incarnation, Relcom, hosting eyewitness accounts of the 1991 coup d’etat, to the LiveJournal blogging and meme subcultures of the early 2000s. When Putin first came to power he paid little attention to regulating the online world. Authorities focused on monopolising large sections of traditional media, shaping and distorting its output to the Kremlin’s ends. This influence would prove vital in the subsequent battle between TV and fridge.
It took the 2011/12 protests against election fraud for Moscow to wake up to the internet’s disruptive potential. Online platforms such as Facebook and VKontakte were used to organise marches as well as share evidence of manipulation and intimidation at polling stations. The internet helped many previously apathetic Russians, particularly amongst the docile middle class, became politically active. These internal pressures were matched by external ones. Moscow regarded the ongoing social media driven Arab Spring as not borne out of grassroots civil society but instead orchestrated by Western powers, utilising digital tools to foment unrest. The online world had become an agent of political change and the Kremlin saw itself as the next potential victim.
Moscow has since introduced various draconian laws in response, focusing on restricting content, controlling data storage and limiting anonymity in an effort to gain greater control over the internet. Material determined to be extremist or a threat to public order — both loosely defined pretexts for censorship — can be blocked and potentially land posters in jail while the communications watchdog Roskomnadzor maintains an active blacklist for a host of services to follow. As of March, showing “blatant disrespect” for officials or publishing “fake news” will also get you in trouble. Online privacy has suffered too. Telecommunications operators and companies have been told to save the data and metadata of users and give the security services access to their encryption keys. Social media and communication platforms are required to link accounts to phone numbers while blogs with more than 3,000 daily readers must sign up to an official register. Virtual private networks (VPNs) have new restrictions too.
Some of these laws have been better implemented than others. Some have hardly been implemented at all. Often clumsy and chaotic, it would be easy to be cynical about Moscow’s efforts. But the intent remains the same — gain control over the online world at the expense of internet freedoms.
Laws and limits
In many ways the new sovereign internet law is a fitting culmination to the campaign. It seeks to replicate what is essentially a physical on/off switch for the internet by forcing service providers to use Russian based, government controlled exchange points (these are the things that stitch together to form paths for information to flow). New sophisticated equipment will need to be installed to allow regulators to better monitor and block a host of internet traffic — webpages, messaging apps, VPNs etc — giving Moscow the power to cut the country off from the rest of the worldwide web in a time of crisis. The law also sets out the creation of a Russian alternative to the global Domain Name System (DNS). The DNS is a complex, flexible system that allows seamless internet traffic. It gets us to the webpages we type into our browser. It is also reliant on an international mix of levers and pulleys to help it operate. Moscow wants its own independent version to give it ultimate control over server access as well as the ability to keep the internet running should it decide to isolate itself. This government managed DNS will, apparently, be operational by 2021.
All this is incredibly complicated and there is little detail out there on how Moscow intends to meet the inevitable challenges. Throughout the process the bill’s authors showed limited tech knowledge and often failed to answer the most basic of questions. Concern over consequences for cross border traffic and interconnected services, as well as the risks of centralised management, have yet to be addressed. The procurement, installation and long term maintenance of new equipment will be difficult and costly. And while the project will no doubt allow for lucrative, cost ballooning contracts for state owned and Kremlin friendly businesses, it may also highlight what is an underfunded domestic tech industry.
Indeed, do not expect a Russian equivalent of China’s ‘Great Firewall’ any time soon. Beijing is leading the drive towards internet sovereignty because of decades of hard work with levels of resources and capabilities simply unavailable to Moscow. Beijing developed its censorship infrastructure in real-time, with China’s population knowing little else. Moscow’s accumulation of control is retrospective, with a population that has become accustomed to a (generally) free internet with access to staples of online culture like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, cloud services and messaging apps. If the financial costs could spiral, so could the political ones. The internet is embedded in much of Russian life and has produced a tech-savvy youth who will not give it up easily. So why are Moscow trying?
Since Putin’s return to power in 2012 a narrative of ‘fortress Russia’ has dominated politics. Elevating the state has allowed Moscow to legitimise a cycle of securitisation across society, where enemies are generalised amalgamations of past and future threats. This brand of statism — hardly unique to Russia — creates a power dynamic that demands extraordinary measures to protect. It can be seen in the language used to justify the sovereign internet law on vague national security grounds as a defensive, pre-emptive act to shield Russia from foreign aggression.
But the new law has a lot more to do with threats from inside the country than out. The online world challenges the Kremlin’s traditional interpretation of political control. While trust in television is in decline, affordable internet access across the country has grown as huge amounts of Russians use it to communicate, be entertained and informed. YouTube, which vies with the likes of Channel One for views, hosts Alexei Navalny’s corruption investigations. Telegram channels are a haven for insider gossip and government leaks. And much like 2011/12, a host of social media platforms are used to organise anti-government demonstrations. The internet merges offline and online worlds in a way that is difficult to manage, let alone dictate and it terrifies the Kremlin. We got a brief insight into the lengths Moscow is willing to go to when, in October and March, mobile internet was cut during protests in Ingushetia. Replicating this across the whole of Russia is another matter, however. Given the botched digital sledgehammer that was the Telegram ban and the poorly managed Yarovaya law, one can’t help but feel Moscow has bitten off more than it can chew.
It’s not just technical and political problems that Moscow may run into, but the international communications and tech firms already under pressure to comply with various strict laws. None are new to the censorship debate. Some, like Google and Apple, have fallen into line when it comes to, for example, data storage and localisation. Others, like Twitter and Facebook, have put up some resistance. The sovereign internet law will introduce a whole raft of new challenges for these companies that will question their values, reputations and potential complicity in undermining online freedoms. While Moscow will be relying on their quiet cooperation, increased awareness of internet privacy means it is harder than ever for big tech to justify playing fast and loose with some user data more than others. Moscow will also want to avoid ugly public bans. That means companies like Facebook, with its 25 million users in Russia alone, have influence to wield. The question is whether they decide to use it. How they respond will have implications for internet freedoms across the world.
Whatever happens it will be the Russian population that suffers. The sovereign internet law is incompatible with an open society and a diverse, growing economy. Tech is often touted by Moscow as key to raising living standards across the country. It is a great irony, then, when Putin talks of the need to keep up with its advancements, otherwise “new jobs, modern companies and an attractive life will develop in other, more successful countries”. Despite the new national digitalisation program and a wealth of tech talent (much of which ends up abroad), the environment needed for innovation and a vibrant digital culture is continually undermined by a security obsessed state. This is another act of self harm.
Polling shows the majority of Russians oppose the sovereign internet law. Civil society, now growing outside large cities into the country’s heartlands, is unlikely to stay quiet. Moscow wants help to quell dissent. But the new law will stoke the very protests it wants to avoid.
Published May 2019