Freedom of information abuse is among the key problems in Russia today. While the Kremlin established control over the country’s traditional mass media a while ago, restrictions on the Internet have gone into place quite recently. Independent Russia analyst Ezekiel Pfeifer evaluates the Kremlin’s current tactics in handling online information.

 

Russian media watchdog, Roskomnadzor has recently made it illegal to use celebrities’ photographs in a meme, “when the image has nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality.”

 

Last April, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave an interview on state TV in which he talked about the president’s use of technology. Peskov said the president does not have a mobile phone (“Putin doesn’t use smileys—people have to call and report to him.”), but he does actively use the Internet. This was something new: in 2011, Peskov said that Putin rarely used the Internet, in contrast to then-president Dmitry Medvedev, whose use of social media and enthusiasm for technology became one of his best-known (and most widely ridiculed) traits.

Peskov said that Putin would not be joining Medvedev in creating personal accounts on Facebook or Twitter, because “There is no need, for now... he faces no problems whatsoever with delivering his point of view to people.”

Why is it that Putin has no problem getting his message out? The reason, of course, is that most of what Russians see and hear is Putin’s point of view and Putin’s point of view only. Ninety percent of Russian citizens watch the TV news, and television in the country has been monopolized by state-controlled channels, which primarily show Putin, Putin, Putin.

But Russians are also increasingly getting their news online. A poll last June showed that 24 percent of Russians read about current events on the Internet, up from just 9 percent in 2009. Overall use of the Web is also on the rise: last October, a poll showed that 65 percent of Russians use the Internet, an increase from 48 percent in 2011.

From Peskov’s comments, it can be inferred that as the Internet becomes more widely used and begins to rival television in its reach, the Kremlin will attempt to make Putin’s voice one of the only voices heard there as well. In order to prepare for this scenario, the Russian government is building the infrastructure it would need to stifle dissent online more broadly than it already does.

This can be thought of as scaffolding for Russia’s own version of the Great Chinese Firewall. The Kremlin has already built a much shorter firewall than China operates, blocking select materials, such as the blog of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. It also uses hybrid tactics to eliminate unwanted online resources and combat what it sees as threats to Putin’s authority, such as Western news reports and critical political commentators. But while the Russian government is steadily constructing the scaffolding for a taller firewall, it has shown no intention of matching the height of China’s defensive structure, for a variety of reasons.

As with television, Putin recognizes the massive potential impact of the Internet. Just last month, at a meeting of a pro-Kremlin Internet lobby group, Putin said "in the near future, the influence of these technologies"—referring to a range of online startups presented to him—"will be simply enormous." He’s almost certainly wary of the possibilities. As a KGB officer in the 1980s, he watched how the freer information flows of glasnost helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, a fate that he clearly wants his own authoritarian regime to avoid.

Part of what makes the Internet so potentially virulent in Putin’s eyes is its Western origins—last year he called it a “CIA project.” At a meeting of the Federal Security Service last month, Putin ordered officers to continue their efforts to “rid Russian cyberspace of illegal and criminal materials” and to “more actively use modern technologies for this purpose.” (It should be noted that Putin also said he was “not speaking of limiting online freedom.” He said people should not be prevented from “communicating online and posting legal, permissible, and proper information.”)

Putin’s fear-mongering about the dangers lurking on the Internet seems to have had a major impact on public opinion: a recent study showed that 49 percent of Russians think the Internet should be censored and 42 percent think foreign countries are using the Internet against Russia.

Over the last three years, the Russian government has enacted more and more onerous Internet restrictions, and has justified them mostly by citing security concerns. Under a law passed last year, foreign Internet companies will be required to store Russians’ personal data on servers inside the country beginning in September 2015, due to state concerns about the West using such information to aid in anti-Kremlin conspiracies. There are now four different state Internet blacklists, two of which are ostensibly related to security: a list of web pages containing extremist materials, and a list of pages containing calls for unsanctioned gatherings. (The other two blacklists contain web pages that violate copyright rules and pages containing child pornography or information about suicide methods or illegal drugs.) In the last six months, officials have floated various new measures that would further strengthen state control of the RuNet for security reasons. These include creating a “kill switch,” which would cut Russia off from the World Wide Web in an emergency, and bringing the .ru and .рф domains completely under state management. These measures have not become laws but were likely floated as a way for the Kremlin to gauge the reaction of the public and elites.

No matter what the Kremlin’s economic calculations are, chances are it doesn’t feel the need to crack down harder online in order to contain political threats, because the opposition is already so weakened.

One other area of concern for the Kremlin is online media and commentary, and it has taken steps to restrict some websites it doesn’t like and to neutralize the influence of others. In a few cases, the government has simply blocked access to whole websites—opposition media Kasparov.ru, Grani.ru, and Ej.ru—but more often it uses subtler tools. Recent exposés have revealed the work of infamous pro-Kremlin Internet trolls, who are paid to leave huge numbers of comments on Western news websites and social media pages criticizing the Russian opposition and praising Kremlin policies. Another tactic has been cooption: In recent years, highly influential RuNet sites such as the social network VK and news website Lenta.ru were brought under the control of Putin-friendly managers, after previously being known for their independence. In Russia’s parliament, lawmakers passed a measure requiring bloggers with over 3,000 subscribers to register as media outlets, making them targets of stricter regulation.

A recent leak of messages attributed to a young Kremlin official revealed that the government also has sway over Internet companies that it does not control directly. In one of the leaked messages, the official, Timur Prokopenko, tries to help a Kremlin-friendly movie star deal with a scandal involving Russian Internet giant Yandex. Prokopenko tells the star to get in touch if he needs help, saying, “We’re close with Yandex right now, they’re very attentive to us.” Another leaked message contains an exchange between Prokopenko and the general director of online news agency RBC, Nikolai Molibog (who confirmed the authenticity of the leaked messages). In the exchange, Prokopenko notes his displeasure at a report about a rally for the federalization of Siberia, to which Molibog responds that he will “be more careful.”

The leak underscores the difficulty inherent in trying to limit the influence of the Internet, however. After all, the messages were susceptible to being hacked because they were online—many government officials use online communication just like the rest of us, because it’s so convenient. The same group of hackers who released the Prokopenko messages, known as Anonymous International, also leaked emails of Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich last year, and the group says it has two terabytes of data, much of it files about people “close to Vladimir Putin.”

Had this occurred in China, the government would likely have blocked all news reports about the leaked messages. Why didn’t the Russian government do this?

Part of the explanation may be logistical. China reportedly employs over two million people to monitor online activities, manpower that would be very difficult for Russia to match. Even as a percentage of the population, the equivalent number in Russia would be over 200,000, and the government likely cannot spend the money necessary to support that number of Internet monitors. The Kremlin has successfully forced businesses to take on some of the expense and logistics of enforcing Internet restrictions, by requiring the installation of Internet filtration technology. But recently, Internet providers balked at the expense of a new filter proposed by lawmaker Yelena Mizulina aimed at protecting children from certain online materials, and the initiative has been shelved.

The overall economic impact of blocking large portions of the Internet is likely also a concern for the Kremlin. In China, the blockage of widely used resources like Gmail is taking a greater and greater toll on the business environment. Given the current sanctions by the West and the low price of oil, Russia can ill-afford to make conditions for doing business even worse by barring the use of popular websites.

The Kremlin might think such damage can be offset by the economic opportunities presented by international isolation. If companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter abandon the Russian market due to the near-impossible task of storing Russians’ data on local servers, the Kremlin might hope the vacuum will be filled by domestic equivalents like Yandex and VK. Indeed earlier this month, Russia’s communications minister presented a plan to boost support for Russian software companies as part of a drive to increase domestic production of all manner of goods.

No matter what the Kremlin’s economic calculations are, chances are it doesn’t feel the need to crack down harder online in order to contain political threats, because the opposition is already so weakened. This is partly due to the increase in censorship that occurred after the mass political protests of 2011–2012. Over the past year, since the Ukraine crisis began, there has been another uptick in Internet censorship as well as online propaganda, due to state paranoia about the possibility of a Maidan-like revolution overthrowing the Putin regime. So far, these efforts have been effective politically, helping to produce record-high approval ratings for Putin.

The scathing anti-Western propaganda and the vitriol produced by pro-Kremlin trolls create an atmosphere of intimidation that security analyst Andrei Soldatov says is the central feature of the Kremlin’s system for controlling the Internet. In other words, the government doesn’t need to block a huge amount of online material, because it effectively intimidates people into not posting things they otherwise might. A recent government statement banning a popular type of meme is a prime example of this strategy at work. No one expects the government to actually root out every single one of these memes and order them deleted, but people will likely think twice about posting them now. This fear of getting in trouble, either with the law or with peers, neighbors, or family, keeps people quiet. It’s the same principle that led Soviet citizens to avoid saying controversial things in case the KGB was listening or neighbors were eavesdropping.

But this constant spooking of people may not suffice in the future. If the economy continues to worsen and political dissent rises, the Kremlin will likely combine this intimidation with more blunt methods, like building up its Internet firewall. Political developments over the next few years will determine just how high the firewall will go, and only a successor to Putin is likely to consider knocking down the wall and the scaffolding altogether.

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