Putin’s reign of power in Russia has been augmented, in part, by his ever-increasing vice grip on independent media outlets and oppositional voices. Currently, Russia ranks 148th out of 180 countries in terms of its media freedom and is only ahead of completely authoritarian regimes or war-torn areas. Apparently, Putin isn’t opposed to moving further down the list, as the Russian parliament has announced plans to pass a bill creating a nationwide internet censorship program. The bill, which has Putin’s backing, could eliminate access to certain sites and news outlets, a move that’s comparable to the current state of censorship in China[i]. To accomplish its censorship goals, Russia would require that all internet access is pushed through a single state-owned chokepoint, allowing the regime to curb any revolutionary videos, images, and voices from being spread throughout the vast population[ii].
This move from Putin and parliament comes as no surprise; ever since taking power in 2000, Putin has continually shown his contempt for independent media. Censoring the entirety of the internet would be the culmination of nearly two decades of work; pro-Putin propaganda could hit citizens from every information source. The effectiveness of the propaganda is exemplified by the use of VKontakte, a Russian social network. One of Putin’s closest advisors, Igor Sechin, gained control of the company and since then the social network has become the main distributor of propaganda[iii]. Entire pages are dedicated to spreading the State’s message, and users can find themselves following these pages without having ever visited them before[iv]. The same could be expected of any social media site once this bill is passed. Putin’s regime has already passed various legislation enabling greater limitations on internet freedom, including bills that give the government the ability to block websites without a judicial nod and others that give the government access to personal and otherwise sensitive data wasn’t spared[v]. The most notable recent development was with a ban on the popular messaging app, Telegram, which was met with widespread criticism and protests in Russia[vi]. These prior efforts to curb Russian citizens’ internet freedom haven’t been popular, and it’s likely this latest assault on their internet freedom will be met with larger, more frequent protests. If passed, this bill will not only curb Russian citizens’ access to information, but it could also impact the country’s ability to grow economically at the same rate as competing countries.
E-commerce is an expanding component of the global economy and limiting citizens’ entrée to certain facets of the internet while increasing government’s access to data could disincentivize internet-based companies from wanting to do business in Russia[vii]. While statistical analysis of the Russian e-commerce market suggests there will continue to be roughly a 9-10% year-over-year growth in that sector[viii], this analysis is based on a free Russian internet. Since the refinement of customer data is an essential aspect of an e-commerce, technology, or social media company’s business model, storing Russian-based data on Kremlin-controlled computers reduces the economic incentive for companies to do business in Russia[ix]. The resulting loss of business could lead to economic stagnation or decline; a known precursor to regime change as Lust and Waldner demonstrated in their theory matrix. Russian e-commerce is already bringing in a fraction of the revenue that other first-world countries produce[x] and the larger the gap becomes, the further behind Russia falls in growing the ecommerce sector of its economy. Ironically, Putin’s desire to control what information his citizens see, in an attempt to further solidify himself as the authoritarian leader, has the potential to backfire and create more unrest, not less. Unfortunately, legitimate opposition to Putin in the political sphere has resulted in imprisonment and death, eliminating any real competition and hope among the anti-Putin population.
Following the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a popular oppositional-party leader, many citizens saw through the propaganda, and recognized that his death was likely at the direction of the government[xi] and not the work of a Chechen insurgent. Since the February 27th, 2015 murder, the Russian people have staged annual protests[xii] against Putin and his regime; demonstrating an unwillingness to put up with how one-sided the political realm has become[xiii]. They “gathered [in Moscow] to demand political reform and the release of political prisoners,” two actions that would shift Russian government towards a more democratic future. Following Nemtsov’s death, Alexei Navalny has emerged as the premiere opposition leader[xiv] and support for him is widespread amongst the anti-Putin population, especially the youth; a key demographic as they were once considered Putin’s strongest support base[xv]. With the resurgence of oppositional hope came an increased number of protests leading up to, and following, the 2018 election; an election that was plagued with corruption that saw solely Putin loyalist parties attain seats in parliament and Putin himself retain the presidency[xvi]. The political culture is gradually shifting from indifference and complacency to one of discontent with the status quo, an indication of the desire for liberalization. While the older generations of Russians approve of or are indifferent to Putin and his pseudo-democratic rule, the youngest adolescent-adult generation of citizens has displayed a willingness for civil disobedience.
civil disobedience of the younger generation, born from the inaction of their
parents, could be the driving force of political change in Russia. Freedom
House found that non-violent (on the side of the protesters) civil disobedience
is the key
to bringing about lasting change in a democratic direction. With the steadily
growing number of protestors, which also means a growing number of people
imprisoned for political unrest, more people recognize that something is wrong
in their country. Thus, protests become harder to contain and the message of
the protest can be spread effectively. Russians have demonstrated an
unwillingness to allow their internet freedoms to be infringed, as evidenced by
the protests following the ban of Telegram, so a completely State-owned
internet could further enrage the already mobilized population, leading to an
even larger insurgency. Any negative economic impact from the bill’s passage
could further stoke anti-Putin sentiment. Moreover, the continued silencing of
opposition figures has become an increasingly raw area for anti-Putin citizens,
so Putin could have a harder time silencing them in the future, especially in
such a way as he dealt with Nemtsov. Ironically, following the inevitable
passage of the bill on State-owned internet, conditions could be perfect for a
shift towards liberalization in Russia, the opposite of what Putin intends.
[i] Board, Editorial. “China and Russia’s Orwellian Attacks on Internet Freedom.” The Washington Post. December 25, 2015. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/keep-the-internet-free/2015/12/25/e9141c8a-a821-11e5-bff5-905b92f5f94b_story.html?utm_term=.c6e1284402ff.
[ii] “Vladamir Putin Wants His Own Internet.” Bloomberg.com. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-05/vladimir-putin-wants-his-own-internet.
[iii] Edwards, Jim. “Putin Has Taken Control of Russian Facebook.” Business Insider. April 22, 2014. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/putin-has-taken-control-of-russian-facebook-2014-4.
[iv] Meomutli, Anna
[v] Sugarman, Eli. “Russia’s War on Internet Freedom Is Bad for Business and the Russian Economy.” Forbes. March 28, 2014. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/elisugarman/2014/03/27/russias-war-on-internet-freedom-is-bad-for-business-and-the-russian-economy/#77ef43c73a23
[vi] “Protesters Demand Russia Stop Blocking Telegram Messenger App.” Reuters. May 13, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-telegram-protest/protesters-demand-russia-stop-blocking-telegram-messenger-app-idUSKCN1IE0NG.
[vii] Sugarman, Eli. “Russia’s War on Internet Freedom Is Bad for Business and the Russian Economy.” Forbes. March 28, 2014. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/elisugarman/2014/03/27/russias-war-on-internet-freedom-is-bad-for-business-and-the-russian-economy/#77ef43c73a23.
[viii] “ECommerce – Russia | Statista Market Forecast.” Statista. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.statista.com/outlook/243/149/ecommerce/russia#market-globalRevenue.
[ix] Sugarman, Eli. “Russia’s War on Internet Freedom Is Bad for Business and the Russian Economy.” Forbes. March 28, 2014. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/elisugarman/2014/03/27/russias-war-on-internet-freedom-is-bad-for-business-and-the-russian-economy/#77ef43c73a23.
[x] “ECommerce – Russia | Statista Market Forecast.” Statista. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.statista.com/outlook/243/149/ecommerce/russia#market-globalRevenue.
[xi] “Thousands March to Honor Slain Russian Opposition Leader.” AP News. February 24, 2019. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.apnews.com/6b2863aca2d24ea3ae44fa7418adf250.
[xii] “Thousands March to Honor Slain Russian Opposition Leader.” AP News. February 24, 2019. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.apnews.com/6b2863aca2d24ea3ae44fa7418adf250.
[xiii] Al Jazeera. “March to Remember Murdered Kremlin Critic Boris Nemtsov.” GCC News | Al Jazeera. February 26, 2017. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/march-remember-slain-kremlin-critic-boris-nemtsov-170226103950704.html/.
[xiv] Walker, Shaun. “Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny Jailed after Protests.” The Guardian. March 27, 2017. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/27/russian-opposition-leader-alexei-navalny-at-court-following-arrest.
[xv] Vasilyeva, Nataliya. “Young Russians Taking the Lead in Anti-Putin Protests.” AP News. September 14, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://apnews.com/ee262256e46446ae8019a640af379d3d.
[xvi] “Russia.” Freedom House. February 12, 2018. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/russia.
I found this article very intriguing and your analysis of the potential economical impact that the proposed internet censorship bill would have was also very compelling. It is no surprise that Russia is very lowly rated when it comes to media censorship. That in and of itself is the pinnacle of Putin’s regime and directly relates to his success. If the people of the country are not given multiple sources that challenge one another and create differing viewpoints, the result would be the success that Putin has had in controlling Russia. One of the things that comes to mind is the varying news sources that we have access too such as CNN or Fox News. They both offer extremely varying viewpoints and although they in themselves act as catalysts for polarization at times, the general idea of varying ideals that they provide is a positive. Recent examples that we have of these news sources do not directly indicate the positive side of having varying opinions. This leads me into the idea of fake news and how people tend to believe what they see without questioning it. The inability of people who even have the resources to research different viewpoints on the same topic tend to simply go by the first source that they see and take it without questioning it authenticity. If we translate this to the situation in Russia, the citizens are provided with only one propaganda spreading machine and this grants Putin extreme control over the perception people have of him for the most part. However as you state, recently the anti-Putin sentiment has increased and the murder of opposition leaders furthers this sentiment, which I believe is a large part why Putin has made this move to further censor media and access to the internet. Furthermore, the analysis you provided of the economical impacts is spot on and I also believe that economically this bill would deter business and negatively impact the Russian economy. This bill will effectively cut-off the people and Russia as a nation from varying external companies and further limit their possibilities and goals for the future. The citizens of Russia are going about it the right way however as they have taken to peaceful protesting. This protesting is a direct sign of improving times as Putin’s undisputed reign is finally being challenged and the opposition is only going to grow from here on out.
Humza and Jon,
You both raise extremely in-depth analysis of what Russia is going through and it is very refreshing to see that someone is actually trying their best to understand the undergoing issues inside of Russia that are not reflecting on their foreign policy. Possible passage of the bill, just like Jon has elaborated on and Humza has pointed out later, will only worsen the situation for individuals and businesses, and will potentially lead to overall regime breakdown. But no matter how positive it sounds in theory, it is not likely to happen – one has to go a little bit deeper in what repercussions the government is already taking when it comes to punishing citizens for exercising the right of free speech (imprisonment, being laid off from work, expelled from universities/schools, rejection of loans). When it comes to businesses the situation is even worse, resulting in small to medium scale business to close down at a huge scale (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-01-29/when-russian-officials-nightmare-your-business-you-can-lose-everything-even-your-life, here is a link to the article that gives you a small background in English). With personal experience, rest assured, small business is in non-existence in the country due to such huge pressure from the government. I clearly see the point of the reverse correlation of the domestic Internet, but this is a pure theoretic approach.
What Humza has said about having only one source of propaganda, this is an excellent point and is a huge issue in Russia. With most of liberal web-communities being shut down and the authors being prosecuted on federal level, there is almost no way that people, especially older generations, can figure out a way of how to connect with their liberal comrades. Non-violent protests have been taking place, but violent outburst from police and sometimes even military (by the way, I am not surprised why the Western media does not cover these crimes against humanity) worsen the situation and make rebelling citizens re-think their non-violent approach and go out on the streets with intention to fight. A correlation proposed by Stephan and Chenoweth that non-violence is more effective in a long term might not apply to Russia because resistance is being suppressed with violence and it changes how citizens see their resistance attempts. I am not proposing a violent uprising of the Left in Russia, but, unfortunately, if there is a chance of majority regaining their power, it would not be through peace.
This was a very well constructed and thought-out discussion of the issue regarding the potential censorship. For someone, such as myself, who does not follow up on Russian politics this was an incredibly informative blog post. I thought you did good job of presenting the issue by considering the topic at a number of different angles. For example, I found it particularly interesting how you tied in the Russian economy and how this censorship could potentially stifle Russia’s predicted economic growth. This was an especially interesting factor to consider as it supports your claim that Putin’s policy could backfire on him and lead to a rise in protest and unrest.
Despite the optimism that shows through your argument, I tend to agree with Anna in regards to the outcome of this policy. To be clear, I do not disagree with your claim that the rising number of protesters would aid in the resistance to Putin, however there is a level of uncertainty in regard to how exactly the resistance could successfully reclaim their freedom. Putin and the Russian government have such a tight hold on speech, and execute such brutal means in suppressing speech, that it seems unlikely in the current Russian environment for a successful nonviolent protest. If the resistance is ever to be victorious, it will likely be in the distant future.
This was an eye-opening post, and I was unfamiliar with VKontakte and how it is owned and run by the state. I am curious for the state’s message to the Russian public about why Telegram was banned, and whether such a move was explained for national security, or as a way to help Russian based and owned social media companies compete in the domestic market. Regardless, this move in Russia is concerning, and I am currently wondering how much of this behavior can fall under the concept of stealth authoritarianism. Passing a bill to make the internet state-owned in Russia seems like a way to hold onto a veneer of legitimacy. However, the attack on journalists and political opponents are tactics from a more historic authoritarian strategy rather than stealth authoritarianism.