Russia’s Internet, already dim, gets darker

Censorship and new laws block online information and stifle digital life
Illustration by Sofiya Voznaya

The Russian internet is becoming less free, more isolated from the rest of the world, and on a path resembling countries with strictly controlled online spaces like in Iran.

A recent report by a leading digital rights group in Russia paints a bleak picture of state censorship of the country’s internet. The research, published by Roskomsvoboda, a Moscow-based group that advocates for internet freedom and the protection of digital rights, examined instances in which ordinary Russians found access to the internet limited by the authorities. It counted nearly 440,000 incidents in 2019 where individuals faced some kind of barrier when trying to access information online. 

Obstacles included websites that had been blocked by the government, or the stifling of information by other measures, such as banning people from using the internet and mobile data connections. 

The report highlights concerns from digital freedoms experts that Russia is building its own parallel internet. Around the world, a number of countries are attempting to control online spaces, with China’s so-called “Great Firewall” the most obvious example.

According to the report, published in February, the number of internet pages banned by Russia’s state communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, jumped from over 161,000 in 2018 to nearly 273,000 in 2019. During the same period, the number of state-sponsored cyber attacks against individuals rose from 20 to 32. 

According to Stanislav Shakirov, Roskomsvoboda’s co-founder and technical director, Russia’s crackdown on the internet begins with communication providers. “Cross-border channels have become under state control over the past 10 years,” said Shakirov. “The key players in the operator’s market, which are communication providers and data center owners, are now controlled by the authorities.”

The report highlights the government’s intensifying crackdown on the internet. Russia has introduced tough internet laws in the past five years, requiring search engines to delete some results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services, and social networks to store their user data on servers within Russia.

Roskomnadzor’s ability to manage and block digital content was expanded last year by the introduction of the so-called “sovereign internet law.” This legislation gives the Kremlin the option to switch off digital connections within Russia or restrict access to the worldwide web in “emergency” situations. 

Internet service providers are also required to install equipment utilizing a method of data processing known as deep packet inspection (DPI), which can identify the source of traffic and filter content. In practice, DPI will allow Roskomnadzor to be more effective at blocking sites.

Deep packet inspection is often used by authoritarian governments to surveil its citizens and censor content deemed unlawful. According to Wired, DPI is the “equivalent of opening up letters in a postal depot and reading the contents.”

Russia’s DPI equipment was scheduled to begin tests on March 20, but has been indefinitely postponed, owing to the coronavirus pandemic. 

While DPI can be effective, users can avoid being surveilled by cloaking their internet activity behind a virtual private network for around $10 a month. Russia banned VPNs in 2017, but the law was only enforced last year when Roskomnadzor placed 10 popular VPN services on its blacklist.

In response, Roskomsvoboda launched a website listing currently available VPNs

Gustaf Björksten, chief technologist at Access Now, says that the future of the internet in Russia might more closely resemble that of Iran, where the government has been able to increase control over its digital infrastructure and even shut down internet connectivity when protests were taking place. 

“Iran has spent the past few years systematically replacing all reliance on global internet infrastructure with their own sovereign internet stack,” said Björksten. “Iran’s national internet infrastructure is still connected to the global internet, but at any moment they can cut it off at the international gateways, and the entire internet stack will continue to function within Iran’s borders. This is the path Russia proposes to follow.“

A Russian “kill switch” for the internet already exists. During protests last August, the nation’s three main internet providers – MeganFon, MTS and VimpelCom – all disconnected their users from mobile data.  Experts from the Internet Protection Society, a Russian NGO, described the incident as “the first state-owned shutdown in Moscow’s history.”

Russia’s policing of the internet also extends to promoting access to websites considered to be “socially important.” Earlier this month, the Ministry of Communications signed an order to launch the Accessible Internet project, providing a free network that offers access to 391 approved websites. 

The list includes search engines and the websites of government agencies and banks. Also featured are pro-government newspapers and the social media platforms VK and Odnoklassniky. Foreign social media networks like Facebook and Twitter or media considered critical of Russia are not offered.  A test phase of the project runs until July 1. 

According to Alena Epifanova, a program officer at the German Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a paper on Russia’s internet laws, Russian web users will eventually tire of trying to access blocked sites. “They will simply be so severely disadvantaged that users would leave them and instead — apparently voluntarily — enter a network in which the state can exercise a greater social control.”

Additional reporting by Katerina Fomina

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