Introduction: Putin Wakes Up to the Danger of a Free Internet
On March 7, 2022, 11 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian Deputy Minister for Digital Development Andrei Chernenko wired an urgent order. 1 Government agencies must switch from foreign web hosting to Russian services and move their websites to the .ru Internet domain. The order prompted a disturbing question: Was the Kremlin cutting Russia off from the global Internet?
The online crackdown was a long time coming. In retrospect, it may have been inevitable.
Since the start of his first presidential term in 2000, Vladimir V. Putin has been obsessed with control of Russia’s information space. Despite his distrust, he initially allowed the Russian web to develop free of government control. That was not because he favored a free Internet, but because he underestimated its power.
Russian censorship initially focused on throttling traditional media, most importantly television. Unlike communist China, Putin missed an initial opportunity to impose control over Russia’s Internet infrastructure. This oversight would prove costly.
The Kremlin awoke to the challenge only in 2011 as massive protests broke out in Moscow against the December 4th election results for the State Duma. 2 Russians took to social media to organize the protests. 3 Authorities responded by installing Internet filtering. They cracked down on bloggers and platforms. 4 This initial crackdown proved ineffective. Russians continued to log onto social media, especially global platforms, sharing and spreading uncensored information.
In response, the Kremlin began working on a new system of control. Government censors identified six challenges:
- The major threat to the Kremlin’s narrative does not come from abroad, but from within Russia.
- Ordinary Russians who witness something extraordinary and post it online are more dangerous than activists.
- Russians prefer global apps to local apps.
- Video is the online content most likely to generate mass protests.
- The decentralized Internet allows events not just in Moscow or St. Petersburg but from anywhere in the vast country to be publicized and promoted.
- Russian telecom companies are unwilling to pick up the bill for censorship and surveillance tools.
Russia’s security services insisted that the Internet was a dangerous arm of the West. They portrayed cyberspace as a territory with virtual borders that correspond to real state borders. Putin’s extensive nationwide system of Internet censorship represented a defensive mechanism against enemies plotting from abroad.
For the last three years, Putin has built a new Iron Curtain. He calls it the Sovereign Internet. A control center in Moscow now controls Russian Internet traffic. It is connected with Internet service providers (ISPs) via specially designed filtering equipment. 5 The goal is to isolate specific sections of the network, cut off entire regions in case of protests, and slow down or suppress traffic from a particular platform or website. The Kremlin forced Russian Internet users to migrate from global apps to Russian-made ones, overseen by Russia’s security services.
In 2021, a year before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin activated this Sovereign Internet. His initial target was Twitter. Access to the social media platform was slowed. 6 Dozens of VPN services, which could circumvent official controls, were blocked. 7
The invasion of Ukraine represents the Sovereign Internet’s biggest challenge. Instead of sporadic blocking and delays, the Kremlin now demands a total information monopoly. Putin’s Sovereign Internet is no longer just a defensive mechanism. It is also an offensive mechanism that aims to silence Russian independent media and block global platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The Kremlin’s rhetoric about defending Russia’s Internet sovereignty has turned out to be a smokescreen for a plan to silence dissent.
Success remains far from assured. Ukrainian hacktivists attacked Russian government websites when their country was invaded. Putin’s website, Kremlin.ru, went offline. 8 The Ukrainian cyber offensive prompted Chernenko’s urgent order to federal agencies to switch to the Russian servers.
Inside Russia, the Internet remains up and running as of the time of writing, and news about Russian setbacks in Ukraine has become more and more dangerous to Putin. In response, the Kremlin has resorted to traditional censorship and repression. It has blocked independent media, shut down radio stations, and forced more than 150 journalists to flee. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been banned. New legislation punishes independent reporting on the war with up to 15 years in prison; the term “war” and calls for “peace” are forbidden. 9
Internet Filtering: The First Attempt to Control the Internet
Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in front of a laptop computer during an online interview in Moscow, March 6, 2001. Putin answered questions live on the internet on Tuesday in an unprecedented webcast from the Kremlin, and said he would protect democracy and market reforms in the country. Credit: CVI/CRB
Russia’s Internet was not always subject to heavy government censorship. In August 1991, the nascent Russian Internet helped spread the message to the West that the KGB-led putsch had failed to suppress the desire for democratic change. 10 Few Russians relied on the Internet for news at the time, which may explain why the government initially ignored it.
For two decades, the Internet in Russia developed free of government control. Unlike China, where censorship was part of the national Internet infrastructure, Putin’s Russia built no Great Firewall. Instead, it attempted to clamp down one step at a time, with mixed success.
Former KGB generals watched the growth of the Internet with suspicion, believing it was a threat to Russia’s national security. They vowed to disable it. Their leader was Vladislav Sherstyuk, a career KGB officer. In 1998, he became director of FAPSI, the division of the intelligence service in charge of spying on foreign communications and the protection of the government’s most sensitive networks. The next year, Putin promoted Sherstyuk to the powerful Security Council, where he supervised the information security department.
In 2000, Sherstyuk’s team drew up the “Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” a plan for the future of the Russian Internet. 11 This doctrine reflects the KGB’s mindset: The free flow of information, coming from the West, poses a threat to Russia’s national security. 12 Threats ranged from a “devaluation of spiritual values” to a “reduction of the spiritual, moral and creative potential of the Russian population,” as well as the “manipulation of information (disinformation, concealment or misrepresentation).” 13 In 2000, Putin signed the document, and the Security Council became the ideological center of operations to curb Russian Internet freedom and the force behind the nascent Sovereign Internet.
For many years, the ideas developed by the Security Council were not implemented. Only in 2011 following massive protests that were organized on social media, did Putin awake to the political dangers of the free flow of information on the Internet, and yet, until 2017, the Kremlin’s censors (known as the Roskomnadzor) pursued a more primitive strategy, like a blacklist of banned websites and pages.
In 2007, Russian courts had begun to require ISPs to cut off access to banned sites, which were designated as extremist. 14 Yet the orders were far from systematic. Websites blocked in one region remained accessible in others.
The Internet played a key role in protests in 2011 and 2012 opposing Putin’s return to the presidency. 15 Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets. No political party or movement directed these protests. The protests were organized via social media — Facebook or VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. 16
Putin was outraged. A month after he took office for a third presidential term, in the Spring of 2012, the Duma introduced legislation that became the basis for the first nationwide system of Internet filtering. It established a single register of illegal websites. Several government agencies were given the power to designate sites to be banned.
Photo: A protester walks away from the Roskomnadzor’s office in central Saint Petersburg, Russia March 10, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Agency for the Supervision of Information Technology, Communications, and Mass Media, began by blacklisting sites with content including suicide, drugs, child pornography, and extremism. Its definition of extremism remained vague. It included any kind of information critical of the Kremlin, including “propaganda of separatism,” online casinos, cryptocurrency, and even sites that sold fake university diplomas.
Under the new rules, Russian ISPs and mobile operators were required to check the blacklist register daily and block prohibited materials. Soon tens of thousands of websites were banned. 17
But the filtering system failed. Thousands of sites were blocked by mistake. Russians found it easy to access banned websites using simple circumvention tools such as Tor or a virtual private network (VPN). Although Roskomnadzor cut off access to thousands of websites, it stopped short of banning popular media. VKontakte and Facebook became the public space Russians used to discuss politics and share news.
That changed in March 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Roskomnadzor blocked three important independent media outlets — ej.ru, grani.ru, and kasparov.ru. 18 It banned the blog of Alexey Navalny, a leading opposition politician. 19
Putin realized that social media represented the biggest challenge to the Kremlin’s narrative, and he launched a new offensive against the leading Russian platform VKontakte. In the spring of 2014, the Russian government took control of VKontakte. It forced the company’s founder, Pavel Durov, into exile and replaced him with a Kremlin stooge. 20
The crackdown did not work as planned. During Russia’s war in Ukraine in 2014, Russian soldiers, proud of their military mission in the neighboring country, started posting photos on VKontakte. 21 Russian authorities continued to deny Russia’s military involvement in the war, but they failed to stop the flow of information from the young soldiers. Russia’s military presence in Ukraine was exposed to the world, complete with soldiers’ names, their military affiliation, and their exact location.
In the spring of 2015, Russian authorities ran a test to see whether it was possible to cut the Russian Internet off from the larger global network. The attempt failed — traffic kept leaking in both directions.
Censorship was not the Kremlin’s only objective. Authorities also wanted to improve their ability to spy on Russian users. Google, Twitter, Facebook, and other global platforms were required to relocate their servers inside Russia and store their Russian users’ data in the country starting in September 2015.
Western companies balked. They managed to find workarounds to sabotage the order, paying fines when needed. 22 In 2016, the Kremlin banned LinkedIn after the employment platform failed to comply with local data storage requirements. 23 However, for unexplained reasons, it held back from blacklisting Facebook or Twitter. Were they too popular? Had they made concessions to the government in private?
The next year, in November 2017, the Security Council instructed the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media to submit “proposals for the creation and implementation of a state information system to ensure the integrity, stability, and security of the Russian segment of the Internet, as well as replacement root servers for national top-level domain names.” The Security Council warned: “A serious threat to the security of the Russian Federation is the increased capabilities of Western countries to conduct offensive operations in the information space and readiness to use them.” 24
In July 2018, a new repressive legislation, the so-called Yarovaya law (named after parliamentarian Irina Yarovaya) came into force. It required telecom and Internet operators to save their users’ data, including phone conversations, text messages, photos, and videos, and to make the information available to the FSB intelligence service. Most Russian operators complied, though the costs of compliance caused some initial resistance – the operators were forced to pay for installation of a costly equipment. 25
Photo: Protesters hold their lit-up mobile phones as they demonstrate in support of jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny outside the Russian Embassy in London, Britain, April 21, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls.
Despite Putin’s best efforts, it became clear that Russia’s Internet filtering system was ineffective. Basic circumvention tools continued to allow access to blocked information. The Kremlin realized it needed to take stronger action.
Officially, the Security Council aimed to make the Russian Internet sustainable and self-sufficient. In fact, the Kremlin wanted to build an effective system of control. The Kremlin identified six challenges to overcome:
1. The major threat to the Kremlin’s narrative does not come from abroad, but from within Russia.
During the Cold War, the Kremlin saw what it considered the most dangerous content coming from Western media. This content could be found on the Internet, but Russians preferred and trusted domestic content.
Opposition leader Navalny’s documentaries about Kremlin corruption attracted record YouTube audiences. In 2017, Navalny’s YouTube video about Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s alleged corruption was viewed more than 22 million times. 26 Since then, Navalny’s organization has produced anti-corruption videos on YouTube on an industrial scale. These videos are more popular than content created by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, or the BBC.
Since 2012, the Kremlin has pressured both local and Western technology companies to take down opposition content critical of Russian authorities. 27
2. Ordinary Russians who witness something extraordinary and post it online are more dangerous than activists.
When ordinary people witness a natural disaster, a technical catastrophe, or police brutality and share the evidence — through video or photos — the posts go viral. The information spreads too quickly for the censorship system to address. For instance, in August 2018, the majority Muslim region of Ingushetia saw massive protests over a Kremlin-supported border-swap agreement with neighboring Chechnya. The colorful footage of protesters, some of them on horseback, was shared by thousands.
In 2019, the Kremlin began to set up a Moscow control center, giving it the ability to oversee access to the entire Russian Internet.
Photo: Telegram app icon on smartphone screen illustration. Credit: Yuri Samoilov via Flickr.
3. Russians prefer global apps to local apps.
Censors understand that activists use apps such as Signal or software such as Tor to obscure their communications, but ordinary Russians depend on mainstream consumer apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, and TikTok.
The Kremlin aimed to shift reliance on Western apps to local ones that the security services could control and suppress. The strategy was to discourage use of foreign apps that could not be controlled, and push Russian citizens toward domestic services.
4. Video is the online content most likely to generate mass protests
YouTube and TikTok’s explosive growth took Russian authorities by surprise. In 2017, Navalny’s documentary about Medvedev’s corruption encouraged Russian YouTubers to spread videos showing police brutality against anti-government protesters. Russian schoolchildren filmed their teachers raging about enemies of the state and posted the videos.
The Kremlin concentrated its censorship efforts on video posts, filing numerous complaints to YouTube about the Navalny videos, and arresting the editor of Navalny Live.
5. The decentralized Internet allows events not just in Moscow or St. Petersburg but from anywhere in the vast country to be publicized and promoted.
In August 2018, tensions rose in Ingushetia over a Kremlin-supported border-swap agreement with Chechnya. On the day of the agreement’s signing, about 100 people gathered to protest in the Ingush capital, Magas.
Ingushetia’s Internet was cut. Authorities suppressed live streaming. In the following weeks, the Ingush kept going to the streets to protest, and the FSB enforced web shutdowns.
Despite these efforts, information about protests kept leaking. A new, reinforced Internet censorship system would be introduced in 2019, a year after the protests in Ingushetia. This new system, controlled through a single center in Moscow, was built to shut down the Internet to entire regions, allowing the Kremlin to act without the need to rely on regional enforcers.
6. Russian telecom companies are unwilling to pick up the bill for censorship and surveillance tools.
Starting in the 1990s, Russian telecom companies were required to buy and update equipment for online surveillance. Starting in 2018, following the implementation of the so-called ‘Yarovaya Law’, Russian telecommunications operators were obliged to store the complete data of all users for six months, and their metadata for three years.
Telecom companies protested. At times, their resistance became public — company officials expressed their concerns at conferences and to journalists. In most cases, the resistance stayed private. Companies attempted to find a way around the Yarovaya Law, for instance, by renting surveillance equipment from large operators instead of buying it, as required. This resistance undermined the effectiveness of Russian nationwide surveillance and filtering.
Kremlin censors realized that they needed to pay companies to install censorship and surveillance tools. They began providing ISPs with special equipment that gave the government the means to suppress and redirect traffic to the control center in Moscow.
The Sovereign Internet was born. It would be built out over the next few years, in advance of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.
Photo: People carry signs as they protest against new anti-terrorism legislation approved by President Vladimir Putin that critics say will curb basic freedoms and make it easier for the authorities to stifle dissent, in Moscow’s Sokolniki park, Russia, August 9, 2016. The signs read: “Do not talk!” (C), “Guarantor of constitution, leave us at least some of the rights” (L) and “No to choking of freedom with the package of laws by (Russian lawmaker Irina) Yarovaya” (R). Credit: REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
Russia’s Sovereign Internet Takes Root
In Moscow, Internet regulator Roskomnadzor established a central control office at Derbenevskaya Embankment 7 in a renovated 19th-century red-brick building. Called the Center for Monitoring and Control of Public Communications Networks, it counts a staff of 70. Sergey Khutortsev, a former Russian security services officer, became the director.
Roskomnadzor required ISPs to install filters. The ISPs blocked forbidden websites. A Russian organization replaced Internet registrars, assuming control over the Internet registrar and controlling who could host a website. A Russian Domain Name System (NSDI) took over the functions of the global DNS (Domain Name System). Russian ISPs are required to provide data on cross-border data transfers and Internet exchange points.
Foreign technology helped build the system. Roskomnadzor’s monitoring center relies on 30 servers supplied by Chinese-owned Lenovo and 30 more from US company Super Micro Computer Corp. 28 Throughout the country, Roskomnadzor provided Russian ISPs with Deep Packet Inspection — an advanced method of examining and managing network traffic — supplied by the Israeli firm Silicom Ltd. 29 The Israeli firm sold the devices to RDP.ru, part of Rostelecom, which, under orders from Roskomnadzor’s censorship center, distributed the technology.
Most digital inspection tools look at the “headers” on a packet of data — where it is going and where it came from. Intrusive Deep Packet Inspection, a Western technology, filters the entirety of Internet traffic. It allows network providers to peer into the digital packets of the message, reading details like the website a user is visiting or the content of unencrypted messages. “You open the envelope, rather than not just reading the address on a letter,” explains an engineer dealing with Deep Packet Inspection.
Source: Authors. Iconography by OliM, Gregor Cresnar, Alzam, and Fahmi Ramdani.
Roskomnadzor’s censorship center not only monitors traffic, it suppresses entire websites in a particular region or in the entire country. Since the beginning of 2021, Roskomnadzor has demanded that ISPs switch to the NSDI from the global Internet domain system. At the end of 2021, the NSDI controlled 73 percent of overall Internet traffic and 100 percent of the country’s mobile phone traffic.
In June 2021, Roskomnadzor began blocking VPN services that circumvent local restrictions. Opera VPN, a major service, ceased to work, and the company stopped providing service in Russia. 30 In the following months, Roskomnadzor blocked six additional VPN services. 31
Roskomnadzor also moved to suppress Tor — encryption software that permits users to bypass locally imposed web restrictions and keeps their searches private. 32 Around 300,000 people, or about 15 percent of Tor users worldwide, are Russian. 33 Roskomnadzor announced its plans to block Tor in a statement about “the introduction of centralized management in relation to the means of circumventing the restriction of information prohibited by law.”
For Russian censors, Tor represents a powerful symbol. While most technologies designed to avoid censorship are commercial tools, Tor was a political project, developed in the mid-1990s at the US Naval Research Laboratory. In the mid-2000s, the US military released Tor’s code, and the NGO Electronic Frontier Foundation funded Tor developers to continue the project. The Kremlin perceived Tor as a technology developed and maintained by democratic countries to help activists.
Tor long seemed unbeatable, even in Russia. Back in 2014, Moscow challenged the service, offering 3.9 million rubles ($86,000) for research on cracking the software. The effort failed. But Deep Packet Inspection overcame most of Tor’s formidable defenses. With Russia’s new Iron Curtain in place, the stage was set for a showdown with Silicon Valley’s technology titans.
Russia’s War Against Silicon Valley
In 2009, Google decided it wanted to become the number one search engine in Russia. At the time, local tech star Yandex dominated the search engine market. Yandex was fast to market, bringing maps and other features to Russians well before the Silicon Valley giant. If Google improved its Russian offering, it figured that Yandex could be vanquished. Google hired Russian engineers. It added local content. It signed a deal with local social network Mail.ru. 34
The effort proved fruitless. Under political pressure, the Mail.ru partnership fell apart. 35 It soon became clear to Google’s managers that it could stay a relevant number two in the Russian search engine market, but never be allowed to become number one.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed the Kremlin’s begrudging acceptancetowards global services. In addition to sending Russian troops into Ukraine, the Kremlin launched an offensive against Silicon Valley platforms. On May 16, 2014, a Roskomnadzor spokesperson, Maxim Ksenzov, attacked Twitter in an interview with Izvestia, the largest pro-Kremlin daily newspaper. 36 “We can tomorrow block Twitter or Facebook in Russia,” Ksenzov said. “It will take a few minutes. We do not see this as a big risk.”
Yet Roskomnadzor held off. Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, opposed a full Twitter shutdown. Additionally, ordinary Russians did not want to lose access to western platforms, and Russian leaders likely feared a domestic backlash. Instead, starting in 2014, the Kremlin experimented with several tactics with the aim of forcing global platforms to cooperate.
Photo: RYAZAN, RUSSIA – DECEMBER 17, 2020: A live TV broadcast of the 16th annual end-of-year news conference by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at a home appliances store. Credit: Alexander Ryumin/TASS
On July 4, 2014, the Duma passed a law prohibiting the storage of Russian personal data anywhere but in Russia. Global platforms were required to relocate their servers to Russia by September 1, 2015. Google, Twitter, and Facebook sent high-ranking representatives to Moscow. Although details of their talks were kept secret, all three quietly sabotaged the law. 37 Russian courts doled out fines for noncompliance, but these were too small to force a change.
The Kremlin kept increasing pressure. Of the three platforms, Google felt the most pain. Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to the Kremlin, hired private security officers to spy on Marina Zhunich, Google’s Russian director of government relations. 38 An antitrust case targeted the Google-owned mobile phone operating system Android, which dominated the Russian market. It was resolved only after Google agreed to let Yandex replace its search engine on all Russian mobile devices.
Twitter was next. In March 2021, Roskomnadzor slowed traffic to the social media platform. It demanded that Twitter take down content the Kremlin considered “harmful,” in particular posts calling on children to take part in the pro-Navalny demonstrations. 39 The slowdown affected every Russian mobile phone and half of the laptops and tablets. 40
The operation was far from surgical. In addition to Twitter, Roskomnadzor accidentally shut down the Kremlin’s website, as well as other government sites.
Western platforms continued to resist. Google refused, for example, to delete videos posted on YouTube by Navalny. The Kremlin responded by increasing fines, imposing a total of $127 million on Facebook and Alphabet for defying censors in 2021. 41
Under such pressure, Western tech’s resistance crumbled. When Twitter’s traffic was slowed in 2021, it acceded to requests to take down “illegal content.” Roskomnadzor announced that Twitter had acceded to 91 percent of its requests for takedowns. 42 Silicon Valley took the Twitter slowdown as a sign that the Russian authorities no longer feared a domestic backlash from blocking Western sites.
Apple turned off its Private Relay service, designed to encrypt all traffic leaving a user’s device, like an iPhone or an iPad, so that it could not be read if intercepted. Apple had already switched the service off in authoritarian countries such as Saudi Arabia. Now it was Russia’s turn.
Photo: A worker paints over a graffiti depicting jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg, Russia April 28, 2021. The graffiti reads: “The hero of the new age”. Credit: REUTERS/Anton Vaganov.
While upping its attacks on foreign platforms, Roskomnadzor promoted local Russian replacements. Russia’s tech industry is one of the country’s fastest-growing sectors, benefiting from one of the world’s largest engineering communities. To help local tech firms, lawmakers required the pre-installation of many Russian-made apps, starting in 2019 — a move apparently inspired by similar Chinese policies. 43 Yandex and Mail.ru own the bulk of Kremlin-required apps. These include a browser, a cloud computing service, a maps application, a search engine, an instant messenger, and two social networks.
The goal was straightforward: when Russians witnessed something extraordinary — and decided to share the news, video footage, or pictures online — they would post to Russian-made platforms, under strict control of the country’s censors. Starting in 2017, most Russian social media and online services were added to the “register of information distributors” and required to provide access to the FSB. 44
For Western firms, the crackdown’s climax came in September 2020, when the Kremlin demanded the removal from Apple and Google app stores of Navalny’s Smart Voting app. The app selected candidates with the best prospects of beating representatives of Putin’s United Russia party.
Old-fashioned intimidation was deployed. FSB agents visited the home of Google’s top executive in Moscow to deliver a frightening ultimatum: take down the app within 24 hours or go to prison, according to the Washington Post. 41 Although Google moved the woman to a hotel, the agents showed up at her room to repeat their warning. Within hours, the Smart Voting app was gone. Apple’s “main representative in Moscow faced a similarly harrowing sequence,” the Post reported.
After invading Ukraine, the Kremlin blocked Twitter and Facebook traffic. 45 A Russian prosecutor branded Meta (Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram) as an extremist organization and the court affirmed the decision. By all indications, the Kremlin will keep upping the pressure on foreign platforms and websites until they are chased out of Russia. As of today, YouTube remains the only major Silicon Valley network still available in Russia. Russians otherwise share uncensored news and gossip about the war and political developments on Telegram. Why Putin allows Telegram to continue functioning remains a mystery. Does he fear a public backlash to close these popular sites? Or does he want to keep a façade of free flows of information?
The Kremlin’s censorship has extended beyond Silicon Valley. It has blocked international media, including the ВВС, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as well as independent Russian media, including Meduza, Mediazona, Doxa, Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), and TV Rain, also known as Dozhd. The list grows daily. Our own website, https://agentura.ru/Agentura.ru, was blocked on March 18 after we broke a story about purges in the FSB in the wake of its intelligence failures around the Ukraine invasion. 46
Photo: A laptop with portrait of Vladimir Putin, parts of office equipment and household appliances symbolizing those that Russian soldiers stole in occupied Ukrainian territories, spattered with red paint at the Consulate of the Russian Federation during a protest ‘Russian army – is a mob of murderers, rapists and looters’. Credit: Mykola Tys / SOPA Images/Sipa USA.
Kremlin censorship has shown mixed results. Russians, outraged by the introduction of such total censorship, have rushed to install VPN services. 47 Attempts to replace international apps with Russian counterparts have faltered.
With their online surveillance and censorship apparatus struggling, Russian authorities are turning to traditional means of suppressing information. On March 4, the Duma adopted a new law that makes it a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison to spread fake news about military operations, to discredit the armed forces, or to support sanctions against Russia. 48 In the three days after the law was imposed, police detained 60 people. 49 The majority were journalists. Terrified, almost all independent Russian journalists have stopped covering the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s rhetoric about the Sovereign Internet represents an attempt to justify nationwide censorship. Despite Russia’s strong tradition of high-quality technical education, foreign help has been required to build Russia’s surveillance and censorship apparatus.
Western policy should focus on improving export controls on technologies that could strengthen this censorship and surveillance. Deep Packet Inspection technology should not be sold to Russia. Global platforms led by Google, Facebook, and Twitter should remain available for Russians to share uncensored news and political developments. Western powers should make it a priority to keep global platforms available in Russia.
Technology companies themselves face challenges. The Putin regime will keep pressing them to censor content. The platforms should push back. At the same time, they should stop doing business in Russia and attempt only to keep independent information flowing.
When he came to power, Putin ignored the Internet. After discovering its power, he has tried to control it. Given Putin’s ever-present paranoia and insecurity, the assault on the Internet was inevitable. Now, as he wages war in Ukraine, he wants to suppress it completely. He must not be allowed to succeed.
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