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Squeezing internet freedom in the name of safety

Contributor:  Khatuna Mshvidobadze
Posted:  02/13/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   russia

The Runet—as Russians call their bit of the Internet—is growing by leaps and bounds. As millions connect, Russian politics is moving online, but so is the heavy hand of the Kremlin. Early efforts to suppress online political opposition crashed, so now the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is squeezing Internet freedom in the name of public safety. Internally, websites publishing “extremist” views risk landing on Moscow’s new Internet blacklist. Externally, Russian diplomats try to convince us that this approach would be better for the entire world.

As the Runet grows in popularity, it also grows in power, including political power. According to a recent Levada Center survey, just during 2012 the proportion of Internet users in Russia jumped from 52% to 57%. Daily Internet users increased from 30% to 37%. At this moment, Russia is first in Europe for Internet penetration. By the end of 2014, more than 80 millionRussians will be active users.

Unsurprisingly, the Levada Center report also reveals that connected Russians are increasingly turning away from Russia’s notoriously controlled television news, surfing the Web for their news.

Moreover, they share their views with friends and colleagues via the Internet. 82% of the 70 million Internet users in Russia are registered on at least one social network. Foreign platforms like Facebook and Twitter are not so popular in Russia. However, home-grown social media services are. Most popularare Odnoklassniki with 74%, followed by Vkontakte with 58% and Moi Mir at 27%.

Another interesting Runet phenomenon is the popularity and influence of blog sites, of which Live Journal remains Russia’s most popular.

For the Russian political opposition, blog sites and social networks have become the arena for news, organization and discussion of alleged government misconduct—a virtual online parliament. Indeed, Novaya Gazeta newspaper even initiated a project called “Online Parliament of the Runet.” Readers nominated “deputies” to this virtual parliament, an online election was conducted and then the newly elected representatives debated topics that, in their judgment, the official State Duma ignored.

Sites associated with political opposition sustained a series of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that had no lasting effect. Many observers believed the attacks in early 2011 were a dry run for efforts planned for the Duma and presidential elections in late 2011 and early 2012.

Meanwhile, Russian government officials—driven by images of the Arab Spring and London riots—sounded alarms that underscored the growing importance of the Runet. “You saw what happened in London,” Prosecutor General Yury Chaikatold his CIS counterparts. “In my opinion, the problem is evident and we need to bring social networks under reasonable control—simply to protect citizens’ freedoms.”

“Uncontrolled usage of such services,” chimed in FSB cyber chief Alexander Andreyechkin, “may lead to massive threats to Russia’s security.”

Depending on one’s definition of “Russia’s security,” Chaika and Andreyechkin had a point. During the period of the December Duma elections, someone again directed relatively ineffectual DDoS attacks at sites associated with political opposition. Many sites were taken down, but many others continued to operate—one could read about the sites that were down on the sites that stayed up.

Apparently, the DDoS effort at the time of the December 2011 Duma elections—whether because of incompetence or palpable political repression—was so unsatisfactory that whoever was behind it called off the effort for the March 2012 presidential election.

However, having successfully employed social media to reveal election irregularities, wired opponents of the current government used social media to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of cities across Russia following both elections. Interestingly, it was a real grassroots effort, not that of a single opposition party, but an expression of broad discontent.

The warnings of Chaika, Andreyechken and others must have hit home.

Soon after the elections, on July 11, the Duma passed a lawto rein in the power of the Runet. The law established a single registry of domain names, sites and web pages that contain objectionable material. The Federal Service for the Protection of Consumers’ Rights and Human Welfare, the Federal Drug Control Service and the Federal Surveillance Service for Mass Media and Communications were empowered to blacklistsites without a court order. Sites can be removed from the blacklist if they remove harmful information. Since November 1, when the law went into effect, 640 sites have been included in the registry of banned sites. A list of banned websites can be found on  

Supporters of the new law, mostly members of Putin’s United Russia Party, argue that it is aimed against child pornography and sites that promote drug use and suicide.

However, many Russians believe that the new law will help build a Russian equivalent of the Great Firewall of China. Russian Wikipedia blacked itself out for 24 hours in protest (as Wikipedia did in the US last January to oppose SOPA). The country’s most popular social media platform, Vkontakte, also protested, placing a banner on its homepage that read, “There is a bill on Internet censorship being discussed in the Russian Duma. Find out more about it.” Google, Yandex, Rambler and Live Journal also joined the protest.

Close observers are concerned about the new law. During the Seminar "Internet Filtering in Russia," held on November 22, a co-founder and editor of the Agentura.Ru web site, Andrei Soldatov, said, “First, I think that moving to a system of blocking access to some resources is an ideological coup. This is a change of the government’s approach to the Internet as a whole. It is one thing when the state requires the hosting provider to remove a site. It is quite a different story when the state requires a variety of providers to block access to a site. Thus, the government says it will not consider it necessary to explain anything to anyone. And here we can say that it looks like the Chinese way.”

Popular blogger Anton Nosiktold Komsomoslskaya Pravda newspaper, “This opened a Pandora's box. There is a gap through which you can write a denunciation of anyone. You can add comments to any site where there are comments, and then to that comment write a denunciation, and trigger a lock-down of the site...Actually it opens new mechanisms for shutting mouths.”

However, the biggest fear is wanton government censorship of the Runet under the guise of fighting extremism. Putin’s government frequently labels any view that it does not like as extremist. Indeed, extremism was included as one of the criteria for blacklisting in an early draft of the law. It was removed, but Natalya Yudinaof the Sova Analytical Center fears that “in the registry of banned sites, [so-called] extremist sites will also be included sooner or later.”

She explains that prior to the introduction to the registry, the main ground for blocking websites was a list of materials recognized by the Russian courts as extremist. That list includes 1,530 books, articles, and comments on social networks, etc. “Now, as the new registry emerges, it is absolutely unclear whether those materials that appeared on the old list, if they appear on a website, will become subjects of blocking.” She continued, “Most importantly, who will check whether something is an extremist text?”

The Kremlin is not answering questions and it is unapologetic about wielding its electronic red pen. Moreover, it is pressing the international community to follow a similar course.

During a joint news conference by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Paris, when Medvedev was asked about repressive legislation with regard to the Internet, the Russian prime minister respondedthat “the international community should develop certain rules regulating the Internet; there should be a set of international guidelines.”

Moscow has refused to sign the only extant document with any promise of efficacy, the European Convention on Cyber-crime, opened for signature since 2001. Instead, Russia has been flogging around the United Nations General Assembly a warmed-over version of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of International Information Security. The thrust of the agreement is to outlaw the broadcast by mass media or across the Internet of any information that could “distort the perception of the political system, social order, domestic and foreign policy, important political and social processes in the state, spiritual, moral and cultural values of its citizens.”

The most recent example of this approach was seen at the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications—WCIT-2012—that ended on December 14. Russia, China and several Middle Eastern nations tried to hoodwink the world community into a treaty that would eclipse the current multi-stakeholder Internet governance approach overseen by ICANN, and instead pave the way for restrictions on Internet content.

The United States and most western countries walked away from the proposed treaty amendments, exposing the wide gap between them and Russia, China and many third world countries. Regrettably, there is less that we can do about the Kremlin’s decision to squeeze Internet freedom inside Russia.

Copyright © 2012, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

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