Can Vladimir Putin revolutionize the way autocrats censor the internet?
It is no secret that the press and journalists have experienced ever-increasing challenges in Russia since President Vladimir Putin took power in 1999. Reporters Sans Frontière ranked Russia 149th in the world for press freedom—a fall of a single place—out of 180 countries in 2020, placing it in an ominous group of nations that include war torn Afghanistan and China. With frequent allegations of poisoning and jailing dissenters of the Putin regime, Russia’s autocratic consolidation has had deep and severe consequences for the remaining independent journalists in the country. Even more frightening is the consolidation of the corporate media environment in Russia—which gets its order from the Kremlin—essentially taking over the few remaining independent. These actions taken in Russia will only serve to erode opposition in Russia and serve to normalize the global trend of restrictions to internet freedom in countries all around the globe.
Most commercial enterprises in Russia that have significant, potentially lucrative, financial and social gains for the Kremlin have faced highly dramatic raids on their operations as a tactic of intimidation and control—the private media is no different. During the initial years of Putin’s rule, much of the then traditional media outlets were consolidated by oligarchs that were brought under Kremlin control, hence controlling a large chunk of the private media sector, but never directly controlling many small internet groups. By the time Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the environment for internet freedom had diminished so greatly that regular internet users faced internet “blackouts” on topics that were deemed not in the interest of Russia’s elites.
As if the blatant actions to suppress online dissent and information were already bad enough, new technological advances will soon allow for a complete isolation of Russian internet infrastructure connections from the outside world. A so-called “sovereign internet” will allow for complete censorship of any foreign internet site that the Kremlin wants, with little ability for loopholes, according to WIRED. This creates the dangerous prospect that will allow other authoritarian leaders around the world the capacity to shut off its citizens access to content outside their borders, and therefore allow for complete control of the information its citizens receive. Existing tactics used by people accessing banned websites like virtual private networks (VPNs)—which masks users IP address, making tracking difficult—and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp would be rendered ineffective if “internet sovereignty” is to be embraced by autocrats like Putin. If this is to occur, then it will be near impossible for citizens to express openly online about grievances and government excesses, something that is already weak in Russia with no judicial independence and rampant corruption. This technology that is being developed by Russian military and public security institutions could become an export to countries with leaders looking to cement their control over the internet and dissent.
Already, the pressure has taken its toll on not only journalists and independent media that have risked reporting on sensitive issues, but the average internet user and commerce in an attempt to control information. In 2018, a Russian court banned the popular messaging app Telegram for failing to provide encryption information to the nation’s law enforcement, but to the embarrassment of the Kremlin, its enforcement was botched. The ban required Russian officials to block IP addresses coming from Amazon Web Services hosted sites—essentially entire swaths of the Russian internet unrelated to Telegram. This embarrassing debacle led to many online sites for banks and ecommerce businesses being blocked, with little recourse until security services reversed the ban.
Unfortunately, with the collapse of independent journalism in Russia, the few who have braved the increasing encroachment of the media and internet censors are facing increasing physical and emotional distress and harassment. Editor-in-chief of the Koza Press—an internet news site—Irina Slavina committed suicide in October, blaming her death on the constant terror she received for her investigative work. Slavina had been recently the target of a dramatic raid on her apartment resulting in all of her family’s devices being confiscated by security forces equipped with chainsaws to gain access to any area of her apartment. Authorities claimed that it was tied to an investigation of a pro-opposition businessman Mikhail Ioselevich, but no other reason was given besides that.
It’s clear that the constant harassment and torment that Russia Investigative Committee (SKR) places on dissenting journalists is the final death knell to any form of dissenting expression in Russia. The path that Russia’s internet censorship capabilities are taking currently is leading towards a path that allows for a “sovereign internet.” This threatens to cut off netizens located in authoritarian-run states from the global flow of information and expression. Russia’s security forces are taking a route that mirrors what the Communist Party in China has taken in attempts to control the internet.
The internet is by far the greatest tool in spreading information and equipping citizens to best hold their leaders accountable. If Russia follows this path, it will join China in cutting off major swaths of the globe from this amazing tool of communication.