Increased Censorship Continues in Russia

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The internet in Russia is under threat. What once was a fairly open net is now crawling with politically-motivated restrictions and harsh repercussions for subverters. Exploring the ongoing changes to the Russian internet uncovers worrying predictions about the future of one of the world’s largest superpowers.

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Vladimir Putin has caused no end of controversy during his time as President. Alongside accusations of meddling in elections, international hacking and the annexing of Crimea, the Russian leader has also initiated significant change to the country’s internet network.

His attack on online freedom comes with many facets but, perhaps most notably, rigorous blacklisting has turned the once open net into a place governed by censorship. In the past year alone, residents have seen over 110,000 cases of website blocks. Estimates claim that 244 websites per day fell victim to the censors in 2017.

As global instability increases, the internet is set to play a vital role in the future of society. The rapid rise in online control sets a dangerous precedent for Russia. Already protests have raged across the country, but the regime continues to clamp down on communication and information sharing.

The Virtual Iron Curtain

It’s no secret that Russia advocates media blackouts. The regime of propagandist narratives had touched almost even information outlet in the country. The most recent development has tackled the most rapidly growing source of communication in the world – the internet.

Over the past decade, the Russian government has tightened its grip on this seemingly untamable behemoth. The Roskomadzor department is responsible for imposing and maintaining restrictions. China’s notorious ‘Great Firewall’ has clearly inspired the Russian regime, which combines censorship, surveillance and data retention to enforce social control.

Sites that have been deemed inappropriate include:

  • LGBT Support Groups
  • Opposition News Websites
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses Page
  • LinkedIn
  • Zello
  • Blackberry App

Both YouTube and Instagram are also under threat as they refused to take down individual posts after a government request. Similarly, WeChat saw a temporary ban during the recent protests. In a comical turn of events, the Russian state – including Roskomadzor – also found their domains blocked after hackers repurposed banned websites using known government IP addresses.

A Short History of Online Censorship in Russia

With its vast land mass and desolate outposts, the constant connectivity of the internet changed social relations in Russia like never before. As of 2004, only 8% of residents could enter the online world, by 2017 that figure rose to a staggering 70%.

For several years the population enjoyed a very open net, exposing citizens to globalization and western ideas. However, in 2012 the first blacklist – coined the Single Register – was created. Its initial purpose was reducing accessibility to dangerous material, such as advocacy of drug abuse, instructions for suicide and child pornography. Once the infrastructure was in place, it wasn’t long before the scope of the censorship grew – for reasons that were less justifiable.

The subsequent amendment, permitting the blocking of sites deemed ‘extremist,’ quickly allowed the authorities to control the political and social narrative. Between 2014 and 2015, the blacklist grew to nine times its original size. The bans targeted youth culture and metropolitan think tanks, in an effort to preserve traditional Russian values. The legislation condemned freedom of thought and was deemed by many as wholeheartedly unconstitutional.

The Yarovaya Law

In July 2016, a new bill called the Yaroyava Law was signed. Unlike previous amendments, one does not have to read between the lines to understand its dictatorial slant. The changes included:

  • The illegalization of failing to report terror or criminal activity.
  • Complete compliance from telecoms to overcome encryption techniques.
  • Increasing the penalty for ‘extremism’ to eight years imprisonment – this included posts deemed inappropriate on the local social network, VK.
  • Minimum age eligible for prison time reduced to fourteen.
  • A complete ban on preaching or spreading religious materials outside officially designated areas.
  • New data retention requirements forcing telecom companies to store a detailed log of calls, texts and internet traffic for six months, and metadata for three years.

The law made it clear that Putin was no longer prepared to accept online freedom and unmonitored ideas. Though never explicitly stated, the move aimed to quash his opponent’s power, at a time when global politics looks to be increasingly unsecured.  This theory is only propagated by the fact Putin’s fiercest competition, Alexei Navalny, was soon barred from running in the 2018 election thanks to an unconvincing corruption charge.

Increased Surveillance & Harsh Punishments

Unfortunately, more than merely increased restrictions define the new age of the Russian net. Surveillance and punishment have also risen sharply. The System of Operational-Investigatory Measures (locally known as SORM) has established backdoor access through all of the country’s telecoms, to monitor all communications directly. Unlike elsewhere, where surveillance permission must be granted by a warrant, SORM enjoys ubiquitous, unrestricted access.

This Orwellian system has seen a worrying growth in extreme repercussions for online deviants. In 2016, 43 people were sentenced to extended prison sentences of their internet activity, with five others forced into psychiatric hospitals. A human rights report also showed that, over the last decade, 214 internet users had suffered violent attacks or threats, with five actually losing their lives as a result.

Overall, the number accused and/or prosecuted for online infractions rose to 411 in 2017, compared the 298 the previous year.  Their crimes were often as minor as posting their political views on Runet (the country’s internal web.)

The infamous ‘blogger law’ is largely responsible for many of these arrests. It requires sites and Wi-Fi providers to log all user data; failure comply means an immediate spot on the blacklist. One unfortunate victim, blogger Vadim Tyumentsev, is set to spend the next five years in prison after speaking out against rising bus fairs.

Bypassing the Blocks

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have long been used in countries with high censorship. The software package allows users to falsify their location, while also encrypting traffic with a unique protocol. Like others in this situation, Russian web users relied on these handy clients to access the global internet and express their opinion without consequence.

However, as the government tightened its grip on the web, it was evident to most that it was only a matter of time before Russia bans VPNs and other proxy software.

In late 2017, the long-threatened ban finally came into place. It required all VPN companies to register with the government. It also dictated that the providers would maintain the Single Register blacklist; failure to comply would mean an instant block.

However, the web is an untamable beast, and enacting the VPN ban may not be as simple as it appears. As the software hides user web traffic, the only way to spot a VPN is by recognizing the encryption type from the data headers and ports. Many providers have already implemented methods to disguise VPN traffic as different types of encryption. Therefore, it is still possible to use a proxy network to overcome the blocks. However, it must be done with extreme caution. Finding the best VPN for Russia is essential before anonymizing your activity and breaching the restrictions. 

The Future of the Internet in Russia

Several think tanks have already noted the failings of the Russian censorship structure, compared to places like China and North Korea. As the populace was able to experience unrestricted access for many years before the strict blacklisting took hold, they are already less inclined to accept it as the natural state. Already, some of the largest and most passionate protests in the country’s recent history have broken out over the changes.

However, with Putin’s executive order to regain online control by 2030, it does not seem as if these recent developments will be reversed any time soon. As a country that is officially still a democracy, this tyrannical stance could pose severe obstacles for the President in the coming years.

Sarah Turner is a digital nomad and travel lover, who specializes in tech and online security.

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