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Even a few years ago, the idea of a government official threatening to block half of the Internet in Russia would have sounded like a bad joke. But recent statements by Vladimir Putin’s new Internet advisor, German Klimenko, intimated at just that.
In an interview with the news site Gazeta.ru, Klimenko, who took up the job in January, allowed for the possibility that Russia may block Google, Facebook, and Telegram Messenger. "Google is eating our pies," he told Gazeta.ru.
Russian presidential advisers don't necessarily make policy. But government encroachment on the Russian Internet over the last few years, ranging from censorship-friendly laws to actual prison terms for alleged abuses, has increased to the point where statements like these are no longer so far-fetched. For the first time in 20 years, Russia's Internet was rated “not free” in the Freedom House rankings for 2015.
Intense Internet regulation is all of a piece with the reactionary policies adopted by the Russian government ever since Vladimir Putin began his third term, following protests that were inspired in part by social media.
That means we can expect further deterioration of the rights of Russian Internet users. But within the extremes of absolute Internet freedom and total North-Korea-style control—neither of which is likely in Russia—there are several possible scenarios. Here, we outline three of them.
The first scenario is increased local shutdowns, like the one that happened in September last year in the small town Kotovsk in the Tambov region of southern Russia. After an explosion at an ammunition factory, all Internet and telephone communications within the town were cut for almost a day, until the security services decided it was safe to reconnect them.
In Russia, only one percent of users access the Internet through satellites. The vast majority connect through large telecommunication companies that can easily be made to follow the state's instructions.
It’s an old idea: in response to unrest, the authorities cut off all communications inside a trouble-zone, thereby both disrupting the protestors’ activities and severing their ties with the outside world. The specific methods will vary from place to place. On some occasions, all communications will be cut, while on others (such as large cities), 3G and 4G networks may be shut down, thereby essentially turning smartphones into ordinary mobile phones.
Of course, activists have ways of fighting these restrictions. In Hong Kong, protestors managed to set up an autonomous communication network using the Bluetooth devices in their mobile phones. During the Arab Spring demonstrations, sympathizers who owned satellite dishes provided Internet connection to their brothers out of solidarity.
Moreover, it is hard to conceal these shutdowns and they could cause a backlash from the public that would only discredit the Kremlin. After all, cutting off an industrial community in the Urals from the Internet doesn’t sit well with the official propaganda of how the authorities depend on “ordinary people,” as opposed to the “treacherous” middle class. The shutdowns might only make things worse and damage the economy, as it is hard to do business when communications are disrupted.
The second scenario is "Internet import substitution," excluding foreign web-companies in favor of Russian ones.
This was not a real possibility even during the 2011 protests in Russia. But by December 2014, when rallies were planned in support of leading anti-corruption campaigner and opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his brother, the authorities' threats were much more real.
Then Facebook and Twitter decided to call the government's bluff. They refused to follow the regulator’s order to block pages that advertised unauthorized rallies—but faced no consequences as a result. Only at the end of last year Google started doing to comply with a law that requires that Russians’ personal data be stored in Russia and moved its relevant serves onto Russian soil.
Apparently, even during a confrontation with the West, the Russian ruling class doesn’t want to make things worse by blocking Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Google. That would be perceived as the last blow to the freedom of speech in the country and would hurt business.
All the same, we hear hints all the time that these actions might be taken. The message is we can do this if something goes wrong. Most probably, the regime is still bluffing, but we can at least imagine a negative scenario under which Vladimir Putin agrees to block these prominent websites and state propaganda quickly tells Russian society why it has to be done.
Under this scenario, U.S social networks would be subject to import substitution in favor of local service providers, suffering the same fate as French cheeses or Polish apples.
However, the current bosses of the providers in question, such as Yandex or Vkontakte, have indicated that they would not be interested in the crushing of their foreign competitors and would actively oppose measures to do so.
But the main argument against doing this is the psychological effect that blocking Facebook or Google would have on the millions of people in Russia who use them every day. No propaganda would be able to explain away the loss of an everyday routine.
The third scenario is a relatively optimistic one in which the Russian authorities take a softer stance, partly deregulating Internet, or at least halting the current avalanche of prohibitions.
This policy might be in response to a new rapprochement with the West, the lifting of sanctions, or the appointment of a new government after this September’s State Duma elections which wants to differentiate itself from its predecessors.
In this case, the changes would most likely be only cosmetic. The authorities would not seek to repeal controversial legislation or disband Roskomnadzor (the federal agency which supervises Russia’s media¬ and communications). Instead, the signal would go out that Russians could simply ignore the country's most draconian laws, just as everyone ignores the 2014 law which formally stipulates that all the bloggers with at least 3,000 subscribers must register as separate media outlets—but no one does this.
This is the best-case scenario for Russia's civil society. But even if it comes to pass, we can still expect serious regulation of the Internet by the Russian authorities, as they continue to see a free Internet as one of the main threats to their survival.
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