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Drawing the Net Around the RuNet

One upon a time, the Russian Internet was the land of the free. Not anymore. From openDemocracy.

by Damir Gainutdinov 28 May 2014

Fourteen years ago, as the new millennium dawned, the Internet was already becoming less free: America was witnessing the battle between the band Metallica and the founders of the Napster peer-to-peer file sharing service; the French parliament passed a law obliging owners of sites to register; and China was embarking on building its Great Firewall. But at that time, RuNet, the Russian Internet, could truly be described as one of the freest corners of the Internet; indeed, as recently as seven years ago, the Russian authorities were paying no attention at all to Internet users, and there was almost no regulation of the Internet. Criminal cases of Internet activism could be counted on the fingers of one hand; the order to block a site was in the power of the regional prosecutors and used mainly to deal with extremism, usually information published on radical right-wing sites.  

 

This golden age was possible because the Russian authorities did not regard the Internet as in any way threatening their prosperity. They had little understanding of its workings or basic principles, considering it a refuge for strange but harmless people with a narrow range of interests, which did not impinge on the real world, where elections are rigged, issues are “settled,” and dachas built in conservation areas using government money. That was then.

 

EXPLOSIVE GROWTH, GROWING CONTROL

 

Over the past few years everything has changed drastically. The Russian government was very discomfited by the Arab Spring, when modern communications and online services allowed hundreds of thousands of people to organize civic campaigns, demonstrations, and strikes against repressive regimes. Even blocking access to Internet and mobile connections, to Twitter and Facebook, did not stop online activism.

 

The VKontakte page for the site's co-founder, Pavel Durov. Durov was edged out of the business earlier this year and it is now controlled by an oligarch and Kremlin ally.

 

The rapid development of the Russian Internet audience at the same time as the growth of civic activity, which was especially noticeable during the demonstrations of winter 2011-2012 on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, compelled the government to reconsider its attitude to the Internet. If in winter 2004 there were 3.8 million (or 3 percent of the population) active users, i.e. people going on the net at least once a day, in 2014 that figure is now 56.3 million, or 48 percent of the population. RuNet has almost 5 million domains, and the Cyrillic .рф has almost 900,000. In 2012, the national search engine Yandex had more hits during a 24-hour period than the audience for the main federal television station, Channel 1. In 2013, the independent Internet channel TV Dozhd (Rain) had more citations than Channel 1, taking second place after Rossiya 24, in Medialogia ratings.

 

This was the moment when the government started to step up the pressure on RuNet. From 2008, the situation was constantly monitored by the human rights association AGORA's eLiberator project, whose results form the basis for its annual reports on the state of Internet freedom in Russia. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of regulatory threats remained at a relatively low level, but from 2011 there was an explosion of threats in all areas – criminal charges against users, administrative pressure on site owners and providers, blocking of sites, and various proposals aimed at regulating the Internet. Until 2012, the authorities found the existing rules quite adequate, but during the last two years analysts have recorded no fewer than 146 legal initiatives related in one way or another to the Internet – from public statements by officials to draft laws presented to the State Duma. Not one of these proposals contains any guarantees that freedom of speech or opinion will be protected: they all widen the circle of forbidden information, set up ways of controlling Internet users or make a crime of some or other Internet activity.

 

PUSHING BACK

 

To justify its efforts to restrict freedom of speech, the Russian government has started to publicize its view of how the Internet could be regulated internationally. It has done this by becoming one of the most active promoters of the concept of  “the sovereignty of the Internet,” which was clearly demonstrated by the confrontation during the December 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. By the summer of 2013, President Vladimir Putin had confirmed the Russian Federation Foundations of State Policy relating to international cyber security up until 2020: their main priority was to promote Internet regulation initiatives internationally. At regional level, within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, these initiatives so far have the unqualified support of the participating states of China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

 

For some time, Russian users and sector representatives had little to do with state initiatives in this area. The Internet community has a strong historical tradition of evasion and escapism: operators blocking sites? No problem, as long as there are proxy servers.  The police call social media administrators in for questioning? We'll put a TOG in. FSB reading your mail? Don't forget about GNuPG. The saying about the clever man going round the mountain rather than up it could have been the slogan for the Russian Internet community. Migrating to foreign jurisdictions has already become a trend – contracts for about 38 percent of the .ru domain were not extended and remain dormant. The Facebook audience in the last few years has grown more quickly than VKontakte (its Russian equivalent), and European data centers are recording increased demand from Russian customers wishing to hire server equipment.

 

Before, civil society used the Internet only as a universal means of communication and an alternative source of information; that this source might need defending did not  immediately strike people. The first true case of a mass civic campaign to defend freedom of speech on the Internet was the reaction, in summer 2012, to the law on the Unified Register of Sites, which everyone understood to mean “blacklisted sites.” For the first time in Russia, a federal law had enabled sites and Internet addresses to be blocked on the spot, without a court order. On 10 July 2012, Russian Wikipedia went on strike against the bill: the site downed tools, as it were, for a day and posted a banner on the main page. This protest was supported by LiveJournal, Yandex, VKontakte, Lurkmore, and the popular image board 2ch.so

 

THE SHIT LIST

 

On 1 November 2012, the law on “blacklisted sites” came into effect and its enforcement was immediate: Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecoms, Information Technologies, and Mass Communications) published press releases practically every day listing investigations into anonymous requests for sites to be blacklisted. These reports were very like the statements issued by Sovinformburo about Hitler's advance on Moscow –1000 … 5,000 … 10,000 statements; 100 sites blocked, 300 IP addresses included in the Register. …

 

The Internet community response was initially nervous, in anticipation of more clampdowns, but nervousness soon gave way to open mockery – the government’s Unified Register of the Domain Names, Website References, and Network Addresses That Allow Identifying Websites Containing Information, Circulation of Which is Forbidden in the Russian Federation was christened the “Shit List.” On the night of 30 October 2012, a journalist from the news site Lenta.ru published a message on Twitter: “Friends, commit suicide, it's a blast. I tried it and really liked it, so I'll have another go tomorrow.” Roskomnadzor's reaction was instantaneous: the correspondence with the social media administrator for Twitter went on for four whole months, resulting in access to Twitter being blocked inside Russia.

 

A year later, industry groups and users were protesting the law allowing for the preliminary blocking of sites at the request of rights-holders; the law was popularly called the “Russian SOPA” (Stop Online Piracy Act) or “the anti-Internet law.” It was passed at the same time as the creation of the Association of Internet Users, which ran its first successful public campaign. In less than a month, the Russian Public Initiative (RPI) website collected 100,000 authorized signatures from Russians demanding the repeal of the anti-Internet law. The government, however, ignored the petition, thereby showing up the RPI as a mere sham and providing no opportunity for public discussion of important issues.

 

Government control was becoming all pervasive: in January 2014, the Justice Ministry issued a statement to the effect that the Russian Pirate Party would never be registered under that name. Officials had more than once refused to register the organization, which has branches in 45 Russian regions and 15,000 members, thereby effectively depriving it of any opportunity to engage in politics and forcing it to concentrate on public campaigns. On the other hand, RosKomSvoboda (the name puns on “Roskomnadzor,” replacing nadzor – “control” – with svoboda – “freedom”) set up the rublacklist project, which monitors the register of forbidden sites and took only a few weeks to become the most complete source of up to date information on the application of the law on blocking sites, which it still is.

 

On 1 February 2014, at the height of the troubles in Ukraine, new amendments to the Information Law were passed: with no need for a court order or even to inform the owner of the site, the Prosecutor General could now demand the immediate blocking of any resource suspected of posting calls to take part in public demonstrations. This was immediately christened the “Law on Political Censorship.” In mid-March, this law was used to block access to three news sites – Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, ej.ru – and to the blog of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. The site administrators refused to carry out the demands to take all the content down from those sites and went to court.

 

The tradition of evasion, however, is still very strong, and to this day the owners of the blocked sites prefer to take down controversial information that so irritates the security services or to change the IP address, moving hosting sites rather than appealing unlawful blocking in court. There have been only a few court cases and, of the larger providers, only YouTube and Group-IB, which specializes in cyber-security matters, have been bold enough to go to arbitration. Given the conditions, even those few organizations that offer assistance to users and site owners (including AGORA Association), have had difficulties identifying complainants ready to fight the censorship authorities in court.

 

But appealing in court against unlawful site blocking and anti-constitutional laws is probably the only way for defenders of a free Internet to proceed in Russia. Anonymizers and VPN-clients (virtual private network) may be user-friendly and accessible, but most Russians are not prepared to use them. Moreover, Russian Public Opinion Foundation data show that 88 percent of the population still lists TV as the main source of information about the outside world, and television is completely under the thumb of the authorities. There is no need for a complete purge of the independent sources of information available on RuNet – access just has to be made sufficiently complicated, for the “right” balance to be preserved. This is clearly what the government was aiming at when it blocked the independent media outlets. All that remains now is to pass a law ensuring that it is only those carefully selected and docile providers that will hold monopoly rights for controlling online transborder traffic. This, in turn, will make it easier to carry out blocking orders and, with VKontakte now under government control, could force many Russian Internet users to stop using foreign social media altogether. With that, the Russian government will have succeeded in its aim of drawing the net around the RuNet.

Damir Gainutdinov is a co-founder of the Association of Internet Users and a legal analyst at the Agora human rights group. Since 2010, he has headed Agora's project on the defense of online freedom in Russia. This commentary originally appeared on openDemocracy.ru.

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