A new law in Russia can pave the way for the government to have greater control over what Russians can access on the internet.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” -George Orwell, 1984
“The State Duma of the Russian Federation has adopted a new law,” these are the typical headlines every Kremlin observer constantly sees on the news. New laws such as formulating a national cryptocurrency, punishing for publication on the Internet that contains obvious disrespect for the authorities, criminalising compliance with US and EU sanctions on Russian soil, restricting foreign media outlets, and even introducing a new crime of “not reporting a crime” are just a few of the bills that have raised serious concerns.
This Tuesday Russia took another step toward greater government control over individual lives, this time regarding the Internet when the Kremlin adopted the final version of new “Internet Isolation” legislation. Moscow’s attempt to control the Internet inside Russia has turned into a cat and mouse game. The state communication watchdog, Raskomnadzor, was given extensive powers to censor the Russian web via a package of laws–often referred to as the “Yarovaya law”—which has extended control over the Internet aka the “Sovereign Internet”. It is designed to “ensure the safety and sustainability” of Internet services, but opponents fear of a new era of widespread censorship.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is promoting the initiative as a defensive response to the Trump administration’s new cyber strategy, which allows threatening measures against Kremlin. Even though theoretically it has a legitimate basis, in practice, however, it aims to establish a monopoly of information in the country. Simply put, the bill allows the authorities to disable the “external Internet” and filter the traffic. “External Internet” here means websites and services that are physically operated outside of the Russian Federation.
Restructuring Internet traffic will disconnect Russian Internet from the World Wide Web and minimise the transfer of data from Russian Internet users abroad. Internet providers and telecom operators will be required to install special equipment that will both filter traffic and restrict access to “resources with prohibited information”, i.e. blocking websites. For several years, Russian authorities have been trying to figure out how to protect themselves from mass protests coordinated over the Internet. It all started after the “Arab Spring” when thousands of Russians protested in Bolotnaya Square when Vladimir Putin was elected on a third term as president.
When anti-government protests erupted on Russia’s autonomous Ingushetia in October 2018, authorities did something they had never done before, cut mobile Internet service in the entire region. It sounds exactly like something straight out of George Orwell’s nightmarish Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the state wants to shape reality and “truth”. It appears that Russian security services have been given new powers to crack down on so-called ‘thought crime’, in the name of protecting the public from ‘external cyber-attacks’.
We can rest assured that Kremlinists will adhere to even minor rules. Internet service providers blocked more than 4,000 extremist websites within two years after the Russian government published a blacklist. Roskomnadzor typically either receives instructions from government bodies or enforces censorship of illegal content. If a media outlet receives two warnings within a year, Roskomnadzor has the power to appeal for a court to shut down the institution.
Some see the new law as a first stage towards creating a Chinese-style firewall, as Russia’s censorship is closely aligned with the Chinese model. The Internet will always exist in China, but citizens can only surf it through a government-approved filter. Both these governments have been actively using their power over the Internet to silence criticism, stifle activism and punish anyone whom they see as a threat to their preservation.
China has a national system of filtering and blocking resources and services objectionable to the ruling Communist Party. However, one can hardly reproduce the Chinese model in Russia, as there are massive differences in terms of political culture, technology, and economic opportunities.
For now, the Kremlin believes that there is no need to shut down the entire Internet to suppress political dissent in Russia, but it is easier and wiser to merely filter content.