President Putin sees his country’s control of the internet as an important step for Russia’s technological autonomy away from his rivals the United States and China. For scores of protestors, however, this is a step too far.
For many, especially in the West, it comes as no surprise: Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic leader, seems to be taking his rule, and policies, into an even greater authoritarian direction than in previous years, with his lawmakers trying to put through a new bill which, if successfully implemented, will reduce internet freedom within the country.
In retaliation to this, activists have begun a number of demonstrations against the new legislation. They see it as their government’s attempt to curb open criticism of the regime and to gain a stronger hold on online censorship issues.
Demonstrations against the proposed changes to the law, termed the ‘sovereign internet bill’, have sprung up from eastern Siberia to the capital, all in an attempt to stop the law being passed in the State Duma, which requires three rounds of voting (one has already passed). If these are successful, it will then go to the upper house for ratification.
More protests are scheduled to take place in other cities across the country. Responsible for these is the Roskomsvoboda movement, short for Russian Freedom Committee, which gets its inspiration from Roskomnadzor, a government agency that oversees the country’s internet, communications and media activities. Nikolai Lyaskin, a top aide to Putin’s arch enemy, Alexander Navalny, leader of the progressive Russia of the Future Party, is reported to have said the bill is another effort by the authorities to crush any forms of freedom on the internet. He has also appealed to Russians to unite against it. Lyaskin, no stranger to the brutalities of the state, was attacked on the street two years ago with a metal pipe in what Navalny and other pro-democracy leaders believed was a state-sanctioned attack on him.
The Internet Iron Curtain
With tensions rising between Russia and the West in regard to the recent accusations of cyber attacks, western observers have commented the bill would create a firewall, dubbed the ‘internet iron curtain’ in Russia, similar to the one already found in China, creating a situation where virtual private networks (VPNs) become ineffectual. The bill would also mean all traffic on the internet would be served through Russian-based servers.
For free speech and the nascent democratic movement in Russia, and especially for the likes of Navalny — whose party uses the internet and social media, above all on YouTube, to disseminate his democratic message — this could be devastating.
Released from prison late last year, after spending more than fifty days behind bars for organising anti-Kremlin protests, it is surely a worrying time for Russians who support the 42-year-old Navalny, seen as a leading democratic light to those in Washington and London.
Those close to President Putin, however, support the bill, believing it is the type of legislation which can help the country strike out against any future cyber attacks.
The financial costs, as well as the reality of its implementation, is an ongoing debate, but in today’s threatening landscape of hacking and the weaknesses in cybersecurity, it is no surprise the Kremlin is taking such a stance.
Although nonviolent so far, one journalist working for the Agence France-Presse had reported seeing a man ‘being dragged away from the rally…’ More unpleasant things, unfortunately, will only become more common if protests escalate.
This is not the first time in recent years where censorship, and the repression of protestors by the state that follows it, have become an issue in Russia.
Since Putin has stabilized his vertical hierarchy of power, and decreed more laws to strengthen that power, the restrictions and red-penciling of free speech in the country — not seen since the darkest days of Stalin and Brezhnev — have come to the fore once more. The FSB, the euphemistic acronym of what used to be the KGB, has been given carte blanche to use repression to exercise its power freely.
The name may have changed but the methods stay the same.
Anti-Russian propaganda, particular by the minority groups in the country, has been crushed by either closing down newspapers or media outlets sympathetic to their causes or, in extreme cases, the personal intimidation of guilty persons by Kremlin-hired thugs.
The politician Boris Nemtsov, in one of the most high-profile cases, was shot dead in 2015 for his opposition to Putin. In 2006, journalist and activist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in broad daylight. Nobody has ever been brought to justice for the crimes, but fingers, particularly by the western media outlets, have always pointed the guilt at the Kremlin.
In 2009, civil rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, along with journalist Anastasiya Baburova, was murdered, again in Moscow. These are not isolated incidents. There have been countless others over the years.
Journalists, more so than most other professions within the country, are finding it more difficult to do their job — if doing it properly means writing about the truth. In today’s Russia, that can get you killed, as Politovskaya’s demise has shown.
Fifth Column Threat
Over the nearly two decades of Putin’s control of Russia, there has been law after law decreed targeting not only the insidious threat of extremist terrorist organizations, but also those that have earmarked more innocuous areas of society, like press publications, activist groups and the gay rights movement.
Many experts believe if the law is passed by the Upper house, the government will have a hard time controlling any subversive content anyway. The vast amount of material on the internet, and the sheer number of people the state will need to monitor it, is beyond the scope and resources of Roskomnadzor, the government agency in question.
With Putin and his cronies ever paranoid about a ‘fifth column’ of political activists and unrest over his policies, such a law — if passed, may go some way in him taking back control, though with reports of his popularity rating in the country from a recent VTsIOM poll, as of January 2019 at 33.4% — a record low for the president — his actions, in retrospect, don’t seem surprising.
For Russian nationalists, and especially for those hardened patriots belonging to the ruling United Russia party, Rodina and et al, the idea of a sovereign Russian internet, away from the claws of American and Chinese tech dominance, could be an enticing prospect. It could mean sovereignty of the internet would enable the country’s networks to still operate if foreign countries cut off their servers to them.
Many, however, see Putin’s clamour for the bill as a pipe dream.
An Expensive Ambition
Karen Kazaryan, the general director of the Internet Research Institute, has said:
“But in the end, it won’t work. Russia is not China. It’s very complex and expensive to build a system like this and we simply don’t have the engineers to realize this project.”
Kazaryan’s prognosis, accurate or not, is just one opinion of a multitude. Whether Putin can muster the manpower to go ahead with his intentions or not is another matter. What worries some experts within the country, is the fact that if their leader is successful at implementing the ‘internet iron curtain’, it will cut Russia off from developing in technology and know-how, which on a global scale is impressive, as the country has a highly developed IT industry.
This decision could see all that go into decline.
It is reported that at the beginning of March there were well over 10,000 on the streets protesting about Putin’s plans for online censorship. Most of those in the crowd were the young and educated — it is clear to see that the youth, Russia’s thinkers, engineers and designers in the years ahead, have very different ideas in regard to this from their leader.
On 15th March 1783, General George Washington wrote in a letter to the officers of the Continental Army:
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
This, totally American in sentiment, wouldn’t have gone down well with the leader of the Russian empire at the time, Catherine the Great. And today, with all the soapbox screamings by Trump on freedom of speech sniggered at by his opposite number in the Kremlin, I can see no other course Putin can take. To tighten his grip on power, the new Tsar of Russia will go to any lengths to achieve it.
And the online iron curtain is just the first of many.