Why We Should Care About Russia’s Stance on the Internet – by Andrei Soldatov

How can we reduce American influence over the Internet? Is it possible to place boundaries on the global network and, if so, how? Today, in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, these are among the most prominent questions in the global debate on Internet regulation.

Surprisingly, it appears that it is Russia rather than China—the established world authority on Internet censorship—leading this offensive on the Internet. Given Russia’s successful experiments in censorship and surveillance, we must pay attention to the country’s role in discussions on global Internet regulation.

Evidence of Russia’s exceptional role in challenging the rules of Internet governance includes two recent success stories. First, Russia’s country-wide Internet filtering system has proven to be highly effective in dealing with global online platforms and services. And second, as a result of Russia’s exemplary surveillance state, the Sochi Olympics were secure, calm, and controlled despite their proximity to the North Caucasus and the plans of many groups to stage protests during the event.

Remarkably, the approach used by the Kremlin in both cases was not what one might have expected. In November 2012, when Internet filtering was introduced in Russia, national telecom operators and Internet service providers rushed to buy deep packet inspection technology. Experts believed that this technology would be the principal tool used to censor content on global platforms. Instead, the authorities turned toward much more direct measures.

Since then, thousands of websites have been banned, ranging from those containing text taken from William Powell’s Anarchist Cookbook to the YouTube hit “Dumb Ways to Die.” Institutions that provide public access to the Internet—schools, libraries, Internet cafés, and even post offices—were raided by authorities to ensure that computers had been updated to prevent access to banned websites. The authorities did not hesitate to block entire services, and this had an effect on Internet giants. Now, it takes just a few hours to have Google, Facebook, and Twitter remove content deemed harmful by the Russian authorities. The success of this straightforward approach encouraged the Kremlin when it faced its biggest security challenge of the last seven years, the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

In 2013, Citizen Lab, Privacy International, and Agentura.Ru launched a joint project focused on investigating surveillance measures deployed in Sochi in preparation for the Olympics. We expected these measures to be substantial, given the country’s poor human rights record and the legacy of Soviet Union’s security agency, the KGB, which maintained totalitarian control over its citizens. In fact, the Russian secret service openly expressed their admiration of the security measures at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, which were boycotted by most Western countries.

Our research found that the surveillance measures imposed in Sochi were exceptional in many ways. This includes the installation of 11,000 CCTV cameras, total communications interception, and the use of surveillance drones and blimps. In fact they were so impressive that Sochi’s electronic surveillance system has put Russia’s intelligence agencies in the spotlight of international media, propelling the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and SORM (Russia’s system of lawful interception on communications) into the global debate over surveillance alongside the NSA, GCHQ, and the “Five Eyes” alliance. For example, on January 22, 2014, just a few months after The Guardian published our Sochi research, I was asked to provide testimony before the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament on SORM as part of the European Parliament’s investigation into mass surveillance of European citizens by US and British intelligence agencies.

What struck me most was that many of the surveillance measures taken at Sochi were introduced almost openly. A headline on the pro-Kremlin Voice of Russia website aimed at English-­speaking audiences expressed it best: “Don’t be scared of phone tapping during Sochi. It’s for your own safety.” Indeed, the authorities seemed to flaunt their electronic eavesdropping capabilities.

The explanation that I offer is that these measures were meant to send a message. Many activists appeared to be openly monitored, their apartments visited by police, and in the case of the punk protest group Pussy Riot, followed by dozens of policemen, plainclothes agents and the Cossacks, a group of predominantly East Slavic people who are members of democratic, semi-military communities, predominantly located in Ukraine and in Southern Russia.

Meanwhile, most journalists who covered the small number of protests in Sochi were acutely aware that their contact with locals was absolutely known to security agencies. A prime ministerial decree made sure of that. Three months before the Sochi opening ceremony, a system of metadata collection on participants of the Games was decreed, and journalists were mentioned twice in the document. The goal was to impose self-censorship on journalists. This strategy was only partly successful since many global media outlets produced stories about the extensive surveillance and security measures in Sochi. Nevertheless, the general success of the Games convinced the Kremlin that a straightforward approach when it comes to surveillance as a means of pressure might be very effective. The key word here is pressure—whether it is aimed at journalists, activist groups, or global online platforms.

Before the Snowden revelations, Western countries constantly rebuffed the Kremlin’s ideas of implementing national sovereignty on the Internet, most spectacularly at the International Telecommunications Union’s December 2012 meeting in Dubai. This is no longer the case.  Like the Russian government, which is currently using the Snowden disclosures to justify bringing global online platforms and services under Russian jurisdiction, many countries are beginning to support the concept of national sovereignty in cyberspace. The first was Brazil when its communications minister, commenting on the Snowden’s revelations, said that local ISPs could be required to store data on servers within the country, adding that local control over data was a “matter of national sovereignty.” In October 2013, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom declared that it wanted to create a national Internet to protect Germany from privacy infringements. And in February 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would talk to French President Francois Hollande about building a European network to avoid data passing through US servers.

Some changes in Internet regulation seem inevitable. But as countries struggle to find a solution, one should keep in mind that Russia has already provided a cohesive, detailed and well thought out blueprint for turning the Internet into a collection of national intranets.

About Andrei Soldatov

Andrei Soldatov is an investigative journalist and an editor of Agentura.Ru, an information hub on intelligence agencies.

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