A Great Firewall of Russia? Kremlin puts key bricks into place.

Why We Wrote This

Russians have enjoyed a relatively freewheeling internet, but that is likely to change with a new surveillance law. How will the Russian public respond to their online life being closely monitored and constrained?

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Demonstrators hold a portrait of Telegram messaging app co-founder Pavel Durov, portrayed as a religious icon, during the Free Internet rally in Moscow on March 10. Advocates worry that Russia's new Sovereign Internet Law is a veiled attempt to restrict speech rights.

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It’s not yet a “Great Firewall of Russia.” But Russian free speech advocates and civil society activists say that a new law clears the way for the Kremlin to introduce a whole new level of surveillance of the Russian internet, with a clear intent to move toward the model of online control that governs China.

The new law will allow official communications watchdog Roskomnadzor to scour and log all levels of a data stream, and reroute, filter, or block it at will. It will also grant the state a “kill switch” to isolate Russian cyberspace from the world or black out particular regions in an emergency. That is likely to turn what has been largely a freewheeling internet into a much more subdued one.

“The main objective is to ban mass protest,” says Andrei Soldatov, a historian of the Russian internet. “If you can identify traffic you think is dangerous in one region, you can send a command to bypass all traffic to that region. ... Despite what some people are saying, this is not mainly about cutting Russia off from the world, but managing the Russian net. And it’s quite achievable.”

Officially, Russia's new Sovereign Internet Law is aimed at addressing problems that are vexing governments globally: the proliferation of “fake news” and illegal content, the disturbing reach of extremist voices on the internet, and the threat of cyberattack from outside the country.

But Russian free speech advocates and civil society activists say the law has a concerning hidden agenda: to massively boost the ability of authorities to keep track of any social protest movements that may arise, block their ability to communicate via cyberspace, and shut down whole sections of the country’s internet if they deem that necessary to prevent the spread of unwanted news.

It’s not quite a “Great Firewall of China,” they say, but it represents a whole new level of surveillance of the Russian internet and clearly suggests the direction Russian authorities would like to head.

“This is an attempt to give [official communications oversight committee] Roskomnadzor superpowers to control internet traffic,” says Sarkis Darbinyan, senior legal officer of Roskomsvoboda, a grassroots advocate for internet freedom. “It will become much easier for authorities to see what people search for, what they do online, to collect their data, as well as to filter, block, and shut down any kind of content.”

‘They have no idea’

The new law will require all of Russia’s internet service providers to install deep packet inspection technology, which will be able to scour and log all levels of a data stream, and reroute, filter, or block it at will. Under previous legislation, Russian ISPs were required to collect and store all internet users’ data for six months. Now all that will be handled from a central location. It will also grant the state a “kill switch” to isolate Russian cyberspace from the world or black out particular regions in an emergency.

The cost of new equipment, estimated at around $300 million, will be borne by the state, although everyone expects internet costs to rise as a result, even as quality deteriorates.

“The measures stipulated in the new law will lead to our internet being slower, possibly more expensive, more complex and less manageable,” says Mikhail Klimaryov, head of Russia’s Internet Protection Society, which is a member of the international Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

“But it’s too vague, and our authorities do not have the expertise to implement it. They think the internet is something like a telephone system. They have no idea what is the networked world,” he says. “We have 6,000 operators here in Russia, which makes it impossible to realize the goal of monopolizing telecommunications. These efforts will just lead to the deterioration of services.”

Last year Roskomnadzor engaged in a bruising online battle with the messaging service Telegram, owned by Russian internet entrepreneur Pavel Durov, after it refused to turn over encryption keys to the FSB security service. That created pandemonium online, with millions of Russian users suffering collateral damage. Yet a year after it was banned, Telegram remains one of the most popular Russian messaging apps.

But the new law, which President Vladimir Putin signed Wednesday, will give Russian authorities unprecedented powers to tame the unruly potentials of what has been a relatively freewheeling national internet, say activists like Mr. Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda. His group was founded in 2012 with the limited goal of monitoring a blacklist of proscribed websites established at the time by Roskomnadzor. Indeed, the group’s name riffs off that of the official body: “nadzor” means surveillance; “svoboda” means freedom.

“We’ve expanded our scope. Now we monitor everything to do with the digital rights of internet users,” Mr. Darbinyan says. “We have been trying to stop this law by all means, through the courts, and public protests, but so far to no avail. ...

“This law will profoundly affect the privacy of Russian internet users,” he says. “In the past blocking was done at the level of internet providers and we could at least see what they were blocking, and even appeal it in the courts. Now it will be done centrally, and we won’t even be able to keep track of it, much less fight it in court.”

‘This is about managing the Russian net’

A survey conducted in March by the independent Anketolog public opinion agency found that almost 80% of Russians were aware of the new law on internet sovereignty, and about a third of those were following developments closely. Almost two thirds of respondents expected enactment of the law to impact their lives in a negative way, through price increases, restrictions on privacy, and falling quality of service.

Russian authorities have been trying to clamp down on the internet since 2011, when mass protests against electoral fraud – powered by social media – erupted across the country.

“Until that point the authorities had paid little attention to the internet, and it was developing in an unconstrained manner,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a journal published by George Washington University. “The government just did not realize how indispensable that was for the development of civic organizations and political activism. And this is what they are increasingly concerned about, especially the kind of activism that leads to people taking to the streets.

“What the government wants now is an agency with the capacity and legal right to control the internet and demand that providers take orders from it,” Ms. Lipman says. “We are not at a Chinese Firewall situation yet, but this is clearly where they want to go.”

Russian internet use has been expanding rapidly over the past two decades, with penetration currently at around 75%. Compared with many other countries, services tend to be cheap and fast. And despite all government efforts to regulate cyberspace, such as the blocking of LinkedIn and a few other social media networks for refusing to keep their data on servers that are physically located in Russia, Russians so far tend to enjoy largely unrestricted access to the World Wide Web.

That era could be ending.

“The new technology [to be installed on ISPs] would be capable of directing traffic,” says Andrei Soldatov, author of “The Red Web,” a history of the Russian internet. “The main objective is to ban mass protest. If you can identify traffic you think is dangerous in one region, you can send a command to bypass all traffic to that region. Only about 5% of Russian traffic is going abroad; most traffic is generated inside the country. So, despite what some people are saying, this is not mainly about cutting Russia off from the world, but managing the Russian net. And it’s quite achievable.”

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