When you hear the words Russia and internet, you probably think of Kremlin-backed hacking. But the internet is also a powerful tool for Putin’s opposition. Last month, the internet helped spark Russia’s largest anti-government protests in five years. Russia responded by blocking access to webpages that promoted demonstrations.
This is part of a larger story. Just a few years ago, Russians had a mostly free internet. Now, Russian authorities would like to imitate China’s model of internet control. They are unlikely to succeed. The Kremlin will find that once you give people internet freedom, it’s not so easy to completely take it away.
I lived in Moscow in 2010 after spending years researching internet activism in China. I quickly found that Russia and China had very different attitudes toward the web. The Great Firewall of China blocked overseas sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. In Russia, by contrast, you could find almost any information online. This was largely because Russian authorities didn’t view the internet as a serious political threat. That changed in late 2011 and early 2012, when Moscow was the site of the largest anti-government protests since the end of the Soviet Union. Social media helped organize those demonstrations, and President Vladimir Putin took note. A law that took effect in late 2012, to give just one example, granted Russian authorities the power to block certain online content.
Moscow clearly admires Beijing’s approach. Last year, former Chinese internet czar Lu Wei and Great Firewall architect Fang Binxing were invited to speak at a forum on internet safety. The Russians were apparently hoping to learn Chinese techniques for controlling the web. Russia has already taken a page or two from China’s playbook. While Facebook and Twitter remain accessible in Russia, at least for now, a Russian court ruled to ban LinkedIn, apparently for breaking rules that require companies to store personal data about Russian citizens inside the country. This could be a warning to companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, which risk being blocked in Russia if they refuse to follow such rules.
Both Russia and China have made clear that they wish to regulate the internet as they see fit, without outside interference. Chinese President Xi Jinping has stressed the importance of internet sovereignty, which essentially means that individual countries should have the right to choose their own model of cyber governance. Putin has taken this idea one step further by calling the internet a “CIA project.” By this logic, Russia needs to proactively protect its own interests in the information sphere whether by cracking down on online dissent or using the internet to spread its own version of events.
Russia internet expert Andrei Soldatov, author of the book The Red Web, says the Kremlin “certainly looks for something close to the China approach these days, mostly because many other things failed—filtering is porous, global platforms defy local legislation and are still available.” Soldatov says that the government would like to have direct control of “critical infrastructure” such as the national system of domain distribution, internet exchange points, and cables that cross borders. He adds that this approach, which may not even be successful, would be more of an emergency measure than a realistic attempt to regulate the internet on a day-to-day basis.
China’s method has worked because Beijing has long recognized the internet as both an economic opportunity and a political threat. China’s isolated internet culture has given rise to formidable domestic companies. It was once easy to dismiss China’s local tech players as mere copycats—Sina Weibo imitating Twitter, Baidu imitating Google, and so on. But now, some of these companies, notably Tencent’s WeChat, have become so formidable that we may soon see Western companies imitating them. In the meantime, Chinese internet users aren’t necessarily longing for their Western competitors.
In Russia, however, American sites like YouTube have become very powerful. The recent demonstrations were in part sparked by an online report by opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, who alleged that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had amassed a fortune in yachts, mansions and estates. Navalny’s video on YouTube, viewed more than 16 million times, detailed this alleged corruption. Navalny called for protests after his demands for investigating official corruption was denied by the Russian Parliament. According to Global Voices, the Russian prosecutor’s office recently requested the blocking of a YouTube video calling on young people to rally.
Russian blogger Elia Kabanov believes that YouTube is now too big to block. “I doubt the Kremlin will go there,” he said. “They blocked LinkedIn mostly because it was a niche site in Russia and nobody cared. And of course the government propaganda machine is using YouTube a lot, so it wouldn't make any sense to block it.” If they try to take down protest announcements on platforms on YouTube, Kabanov says, new ones will appear. “I really can’t see the way for the Kremlin to implement the Chinese model now: Everything is too connected, their own agencies are using all these services.”
Russia does have its own domestic social networks, of course. VKontakte (VK), for example, is far more influential than Facebook. Soldatov notes that VK played an unusually big role in the recent protests. But Facebook still has a devoted Russian following, especially among political activists.
According to Soldatov:
VK is popular among a completely different audience. The Facebook audience is much more loyal to the platform. It's mostly urban advanced intelligentsia. They learned to use Facebook shortly before or during the protests in Moscow and they won't give it up because of the pressure—they use Facebook as the place for debate, not to share cats.
No government can entirely control the flow of information. Even in China, those determined to find information can find a tool, say a virtual private network, to jump over the firewall. Russian censors will face a similar challenge. In recent years, there has been an ongoing increase in Russian use of Tor, a browser that can be used to circumvent censorship. As a 2015 Global Voices article noted, “the increase in censorship closely mirrors the upward trend in interest towards Tor.”
In the short term Russian street protests may fizzle out, especially as Moscow cracks down on dissent. But the story won’t end there. The internet on its own will not cause a revolution in Russia, but it can be an effective tool for organization. Beijing figured this out a long time ago, but the Kremlin is learning it too late.
This article is adapted from the forthcoming Attacks on the Press: The New Face of Censorship, a book from the Committee to Protect Journalists.