The Kremlin's Internet Takeover
March 26, 2014
By Yulia Danilina
On March 13, the Russian agency in charge of media supervision, Roskomnadzor, blocked several opposition websites, including the blog of Russia’s most famous anti-corruption activist and politician, Alexei Navalny, as well as the website of the opposition radio station Echo Moskvy—for publishing Navalny’s blog. All websites were blocked under the “anti-extremist law,” while the postings in Navalny’s blog had also allegedly violated the rules of Navalny’s recent house arrest. This move confirmed the long-growing fear that the Kremlin will increasingly use legal grounds, and the country’s dependent court system, to severely limit online freedom of speech and exert pressure on the opposition-leaning media. The Russian Internet, once a vibrant and relatively uncensored space for political self-expression, is currently undergoing a dramatic transformation.
While almost all media attention is now confined to the situation in Crimea, it is easy to overlook another related, and equally unsettling, encroachment that is taking place inside Russia: the state’s increasing control over the Russian sector of the Internet, which, until recently, remained one of the main sources of uncensored information.
The blocking of the five important opposition websites a few days before the secession referendum in Crimea represents yet another milestone in a process of stifling the dissenting voices within Russian society that has been underway since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term. During this time, the Russian State Duma has been feverishly churning out a large number of restrictive laws, many of them aimed, directly or indirectly, at the regulation of the Internet. According to a Russian human rights watchdog, between 2011 and 2013 the number of Internet-related restrictive initiatives spiked from 5 to 75.
The so-called “anti-extremism law,” which was used to block the opposition websites, is the latest piece of controversial legislation that went into effect on February 1, 2014 and authorized prosecutors to blacklist and block websites that have certain types of content, without a court ruling. The law that, according to the government bureaucrats, was meant to “protect” Internet users from “unlawful content” had a number of obvious loopholes in wording that alarmed journalists and opposition politicians. For example, the term “extremist materials” remains undefined, giving the authorities substantial leeway to apply this label as they choose.
Even more alarmingly, the law equated “incitements to participate in mass public events held in violation of the established order” with “terrorism” and “extremism,” essentially outlawing the right of citizens to protest their government’s policies. In addition, the law was the brainchild of an odious figure in Russian politics, Andrei Lugovoi, more famous for his involvement in the poisoning of ex-Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006.
To justify this wording, and the scope of the censorship, bureaucrats referred to the October 2013 ethnic clashes in the Moscow district of Biryulevo, which were allegedly coordinated through social networks. Opposition politicians, however, believe that the Kremlin’s real concern is the situation in Ukraine. Many also remember the incident during the 2011-2012 nationwide protests in Russia, when the St. Petersburg FSB requested that the Russian-based social network VKontakte block the protest groups. The only legal mechanism for shutting down unwanted content that the FSB had in 2011 was sending a fax to Pavel Durov, the founder of the network and hoping that he would cooperate. He did not, instead leaking the fax to the media, and the incident quickly defused.
In 2014, the situation is notably different. By February 2014 there were already three laws in place, including the “anti-extremist law,” that authorized government blocking of websites. One of them, the law from November 2012, proposed soon after the protests in Russia began, inaugurated the so-called “black lists” of web sites, ostensibly for the sake of protecting children from “dangerous” information; another, from August 2013, requires immediate blocking of websites that allegedly contain copyright-infringing video materials.
On their face, the three “blocking” laws reflect legitimate concerns many democratic countries have and the types of content that they legally restrict. Yet, in the context of the Russian political reality of the last two years, characterized by pronounced anti-Western rhetoric and increasingly repressive policies, it was only a matter of time before website blocking would be imposed for political purposes. Moreover, the laws where pushed through the Duma in a hasty and non-transparent manner that did not imply sincere consultation with the public, or major industry stakeholders.
Russian lawmakers ignored the concerns of the experts and the protests of the industry professionals who did not object to the need to restrict certain types of content, but disagreed with the controversial wording and the blocking procedures introduced in these laws that enabled abuses of power.
The crucial and most contested change to the Russian legal system that these laws introduced was the empowerment of the party that seeks to censor certain content, and essentially deprive content owners of legal mechanisms to challenge the decision before their content has already been blocked. Both the “anti-pornography” and copyright laws allow the blocking of Internet resources as soon as 24 hours after the notification to remove the “prohibited” content has been sent to content owners; in the case of the “anti-extremism” law, notification is not even required. The unblocking procedure is not so clear-cut and can potentially take months before the validity of the blocking could be established in court.
The institutions most empowered by these laws are the prosecutor’s office and Roskomnadzor, who now have direct access, through the ISPs, to the Internet’s control levers. The blocking procedures that these laws legitimize are extremely non-transparent and unidirectional. Given the limited time and severe penalties, ISPs are incentivized to cut access the entire domain name, or even IP address, which, instead of blocking just the “questionable” webpage, would restrict access to the entire website, or even all websites hosted on the same server.
The question of how far the Russian government is willing to go with Internet censorship has been discussed in the Russian liberal media since the introduction of the first “black lists” law. Last year’s record revealed a mixed picture. On the one hand, many websites subjected to blocking under the “black lists” law indeed contain child pornography, sell drugs, and contain information about suicides.
On the other hand, Roskomsvoboda, the watchdog that keeps tabs on which sites have been blacklisted, and the media, report mass violations that include the unfounded blocking of internet resources, over-blocking websites with the same IP address, blocking with reference to laws unrelated to blacklists, inadequacy in classification, and disproportionality of “punishment.” Some of the blocked websites happened to be liberal media, or blog posts by influential liberal bloggers. For example, the online publication Gazeta.ru was blocked in several regions for publishing articles about corruption. Similarly, a blog post by Artemy Lebedev, a top Russian blogger, whose extravagant Live Journal blog often features posts critical of the government, was blacklisted for publishing a video called “Dumb Ways to Die,” which turned out to be an Australian social advertising campaign. According to Roskomsvoboda, more than 35,000 domains are currently blocked, and almost 99 percent of them were blocked unlawfully because they shared their IP with the blacklisted content.
Furthermore, since the introduction of the first “blacklists” law, most of major social networks and blogging services, including Live Journal, Google+, and World Press were blocked nationwide, while the blocking of other networks occurred regionally. Two major websites, a social network VKontakte, Russian analog of Facebook, and Google were reportedly blocked due to a “technical error.”
When these selective blockings began occurring, it seemed that the government was testing the reactions of the society and gradually making Internet users accustomed to the idea of content blocking. At the same time, the regime was gradually developing a toolkit that would allow it a considerable degree of control over the Internet space should the political necessity arise. It seems that the referendum in Crimea was the first such occasion, important enough to cause the first serious and long-term blocking of the opposition websites. Given that all five websites were blocked in violation of even those, however imperfect, laws that the regime put in place to justify its actions, we can talk about the beginning of the open government censorship of the Russian Internet. No evasive references to morals and security considerations are necessary anymore.
What we can expect now is a growing number of restrictive Internet laws, including those that legitimize a greater degree of surveillance, and the increasing resistance of the online community that already begins discussing and sharing new technological methods of circumvention of these restrictions. One thing is clear to many Internet users in Russia: the Internet free of censorship and with limited government presence, as it existed for many years, is no more. What comes next, a dystopian network of surveillance, or a relatively free communication space, is up to the industry and the Internet users in Russia and abroad; for now the trend is not very reassuring.
Yulia Danilina is a research intern with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a graduate of American University, School of International Service.