China Censors the Web. So Why Doesn’t Russia?

MOSCOW – Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-controlled RT TV channel, recently called on the government to block access to Western social media.

She wrote: “Foreign platforms in Russia must be closed.”

Your choice of social network to send this message to: Twitter.

While the Kremlin fears an open internet shaped by American companies, it simply cannot end it.

Russia’s winter of discontent, waves of nationwide protests sparked by the return of opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, was made possible by the country’s free and open internet. The state controls the television waves, but the dramatic arrest of Mr Navalny on arrival in Moscow, his investigation into the alleged secret palace of President Vladimir V. Putin and the protests of his supporters have been broadcast online to an audience of millions.

For years, the Russian government has been using the technological and legal infrastructure to restrict freedom of expression on the internet, leading to frequent predictions that the country could be headed for internet censorship similar to the great Chinese firewall.

But even as Mr Putin faced the biggest protests in years last month, his government seemed unwilling – and to some extent unable – to block websites or take other drastic measures to spread digital disagreements to limit.

The hesitation has underscored the challenge Putin faces as he tries to mitigate the political ramifications of cheap high-speed internet access to remote corners of the vast country while avoiding pissing off a population browsing Instagram, YouTube and Twitter fell in love and TikTok.

“They’re scared,” said Dmitri Galushko, a Moscow telecommunications advisor, about why the Kremlin didn’t pinch harder. “They have all these weapons, but they don’t know how to use them.”

In a broader sense, the question of how to deal with the Internet poses a dilemma for Putin’s Russia: whether to take state repression to a new level and risk public backlash, or to continue trying to cope with public discontent, by maintaining the appearance of an open society.

In China, government control went hand in hand with the early development of the Internet. In Russia, where the Soviet legacy of an enormous pool of engineering talent resides, digital entrepreneurship flourished freely for two decades until Putin tried to restrict the online language after the anti-government protests of 2011 and 2012.

At that point in time, the open Internet was so entrenched in business and society – and its architecture so decentralized – that it was too late to radically change course. But efforts to censor the Internet, as well as the requirement that Internet providers install devices for government surveillance and control, increased from law to law. At the same time, Internet access is being expanded, thanks in part to government support.

Russian officials now say they have the technology to enable a “sovereign RuNet” – a network that would allow Russians access to Russian websites even if the country were cut off from the World Wide Web. The official line is that this expensive infrastructure provides protection in the event that nefarious Western forces attempt to cut Russia’s communications links. But activists say it should actually allow the Kremlin to cut off all or part of Russia from the world.

“In principle, it will be possible to restore or enable the autonomous functioning of the Russian web segment,” Dmitry A. Medvedev, deputy chairman of Putin’s Security Council and former prime minister, recently told reporters. “Technologically everything is ready for it.”

In the midst of this year’s domestic unrest, Russia’s saber rattling against Silicon Valley has reached a new intensity. Mr Navalny has used Google’s YouTube, Facebook’s Instagram, and expert Twitter to reach tens of millions of Russians with his meme-worthy depictions of official corruption, right down to the $ 850 toilet brush he allegedly identified on a piece of property used by Mr . Putin.

At the same time, Russia has tried to prevent these companies from suspending Kremlin-friendly accounts or forcing them to remove pro-Navalny content. (The voice of Mr Navalny can also be heard behind bars on social media: a court on Saturday upheld his sentence of more than two years.)

The Russian regulator for telecommunications, Roskomnadzor, has set itself the task of verbally abusing American Internet companies, sometimes several times a day. On Wednesday, the regulator announced that the voice chat social network Clubhouse has “violated the right of citizens to access and freely distribute information” by suspending the account of a well-known state television host, Vladimir Solovyov. On January 29, she claimed that Google blocked YouTube videos featuring the Russian national anthem, calling it “flagrant and unacceptable rudeness to all citizens of our country”.

The clubhouse apparently banned Mr. Solovyov’s account because of user complaints, while Google said that some videos featuring the Russian anthem were mistakenly banned due to a content rights issue. The clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition, as calls for nationwide protests grew after Mr Navalny’s arrest last month, Roskomnadzor said social networks encourage minors to engage in illegal activities.

The Russian social network VKontakte and the Chinese-owned TikTok app partially followed Roskomnadzor’s instructions to block access to protest-related content. However, Facebook declined, stating, “This content does not violate our community standards.”

Despite all the criticism of American social media companies, the Kremlin has used it extensively to get its message across the world. It was Facebook that served as the main tool in Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States. On YouTube, the state-controlled network RT has a total of 14 million subscribers for its English, Spanish and Arabic-language channels.

Ms. Simonyan, RT’s editor, says she will continue to use American social media platforms as long as they are not banned.

“To stop using these platforms while everyone else is using them is to surrender to your opponent,” she said in a statement to the New York Times. “To ban them for everyone means to defeat the said opponent.”

A law signed by Putin in December gives his government new powers to block or restrict access to social networks that have not yet been used. When regulators tried to block access to the Telegram messaging app starting in 2018, the two-year effort failed after Telegram found ways to bypass the restrictions.

Instead, officials are trying to lure Russians into social networks like VKontakte, which are closely linked to the government. Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the state-owned natural gas giant, has promised to turn its long-dying video platform RuTube into a competitor to YouTube. And in December it was said to have bought a TikTok-style app called “Ya Molodets” – Russian for “I’m great” – to share short smartphone videos.

Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who co-wrote a book about the Kremlin’s efforts to control the internet, says the strategy of convincing people to use Russian platforms is a way to keep dissent from going viral in times of crisis . As of April 1, all smartphones sold in Russia must be pre-installed with 16 Russian-made apps, including three social networks and a response to Apple’s Siri voice assistant called Marusya.

“The goal is for the typical Russian user to live in a bubble of Russian apps,” Soldatov said. “It could possibly be pretty effective.”

Even more effective, say some activists, is the speeding up of Putin’s machine of selective repression. A new law makes online defamation punishable by up to five years in prison, and the editor of a popular news website was jailed for 15 days for retweeted a joke referring to a pro-navalny protest in January.

A widespread video earlier this month featured a SWAT team in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok interrogating Gennady Shulga, a local video blogger who covered the protests. An officer in a helmet, goggles and combat suit pushes shirtless Mr. Shulga onto a tiled floor next to two bowls of pet food.

“The Kremlin is losing the information race very much,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, an Internet freedom activist. “Self-censorship and fear – that is what we are heading for.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed to the coverage.

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