Putin ramps up Internet censorship, citing Google and Snowden to ensure public support

By Yasha Levine , written on March 20, 2014

From The News Desk

The ongoing conflict between Russia, Ukraine and the West has unleashed some very dark latent fascist forces -- not just on the ground, but also in cyberspace.

As Ukrainian ultra-nationalists took control of Western Ukraine and Russian special forces seized strategic points in Crimea in preparation for its secession vote, the Kremlin used the conflict as an excuse to roll out a new and highly regressive system of Internet censorship.

On March 13, a half-dozen highly trafficked opposition blogs and indie media outlets were suddenly blocked within Russia. The websites —  including the highly respected Ekho Moskvy radio station and the blog of popular nationalist opposition politician, Alexei Navalny — received no notice of the impeding cutoff.

There was no court order, no trial, not even a public hearing. But there's no doubt the move was official: Roskomnadzor, Russia's mass media and telecommunications regulator, very publicly announced it in a directive to Russian ISPs, explaining that access to these websites must be blocked for extremism and for encouraging people to attend unsanctioned protests — in this case, against Russia's annexation of Crimea.

This new formal power to unilaterally block access to any website comes via a brand new Internet censorship law that went into effect on February 1, 2014. It's called the "Law of Lugovoi" — named after its author, State Duma Deputy Andrei Lugovoi, a scary ex-FSB officer-turned-Duma deputy who is better known as the prime suspect in the 2007 polonium assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Russia has refused to extradite Lugovoi to the UK to face trial and has instead allowed him to make a second career for himself as an ambitious legislator in Russia's lower house of parliament. Lugovoi has put his personal stamp on plenty of bills, including ones that limit free speech and expand the power of the FSB. (He's also know for periodically issuing veiled death threats against opposition politicians.)

Lugovoi's latest achievement empowered Roskomnadzor to block access to websites deemed to contain information that promotes extremism and/or endangers public safety. But the wording and definitions of the law are so loose that it can be interpreted to forbid pretty much anything critical of the ruling government: political opposition, environmental activism, provocative political art, investigative journalism, nonviolent political protest, LGBT rights activism...

And yet, the law was passed with very little mass protest or outrage. In fact, according to one recent poll, 63% of Russians support Internet censorship.

Russia's Internet clamp down is largely about suppressing political opposition to Putin's rule. But it's also about something else: asserting Russia's control over the information that flows through its domestic Internet space and resisting the monopolies of Silicon Valley megacorps like Google, Apple and Facebook. And that's the clue to why so many Russians apparently support it.

In a speech before the Federation Council earlier this week, President Putin strongly affirmed Russia's right to self-rule, free of America's meddling and intervention in its domestic affairs and traditional sphere of influence. Indeed, a whole suite of laws is currently working its way through Russian legislature that would start to put restrictions on foreign tech companies and make their data legally accessible to the Russian government — in much the same way that those companies already supply data to American intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

I'll get to that in a moment, but first let's take a brief tour through the history of Russian Internet censorship and surveillance.

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Russian security services have always eyed the Internet with fear and suspicion, seeing it as a dangerous tool of a foreign government, and that could be to destabilize the country. In 1996, the deputy director of FAPSI — Russia's version of the NSA — told the State Duma that "the Internet poses a threat to National Security." They had every right to be suspicious. After all, the Internet was started as project of the US military, and was under the direct control the US government until 1999.

In the mid-1990s, the FSB forced Russian ISPs to install "interception devices" that plugged the Internet into an existing nationwide surveillance system called SORM, a sort of primitive version of NSA's PRISM program. SORM gave security personnel access to all electronic communication — landlines, mobile phones and Internet traffic — allowing them monitor financial transactions, listen in on phone conversations and record Internet activity of just about anyone in the country including opposition leaders, political activists, journalists, business leaders.

SORM worked — and worked well. But according to Andrei Soldatov, a legendary investigative journalist covering Russia's security services, the system remains rather old fashioned and labor intensive, with phone and Internet taps still having to be operated manually by an army of agents. To block unwanted websites, Russia's security services depended on informal and ad hoc techniques.

Of course, under Putin, Russian media — once owned by rival oligarchs who used their media holdings as extensions of their business empires — was either nationalized outright or bought out by oligarchs absolutely loyal to the Kremlin. This meant unwanted content and publications could be removed at the source, if they ever appeared in the first place.

Blogs and indie websites were a slightly more complicated affair, involving all manner of FSB dirty tricks. Opposition websites and news outfits would be hacked and trashed, flooded with DDoS attacks and/or sporadically blocked by ISPs, as if they were suffering a technical glitch. Publishers, editors, journalists, activists and opposition leaders would be threatened, hauled into court on trumped up charges and sometimes jailed. Media businesses would be audited and investigated for tax evasion or other "crimes." The point wasn't necessarily to only target and block Internet access, but make it so that unwanted content would never get a chance to be published on the Internet in the first place. A new law passed in 2006 vastly expanded the crime of "extremism," which quickly became a euphemism for unsanctioned political views, and a legal pretext  to harass and silence journalists and political activists alike.

I saw this approach firsthand in Moscow in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections, when Vladimir Putin handed over power temporarily to Dmitry Medvedev. As the election date approached and protest activity against Putin and Medvedev surged, indie news outlets and opposition websites were routinely hacked and DDoS'ed. The Moscow-based satirical newspaper where I worked, The eXile, was accused by a Kremlin agency of spreading extremism. Four Kremlin agents conducted an "unplanned urgent audit" of our editorial content, which ultimately forced the paper to close down after 11 years in business.

This type of censorship was like a Soviet car repair — lots of jerry-rigged components, coat hangers and electrical tape. Lot's of huffing and puffing, swearing and grease. It's effective, but crude and requires a lot of effort. It also became increasing untenable as political opposition in the country grew, blogs and social networking proliferated and new Internet technology made it less and less effective.

In late 2011, Russia's security services learned just how ineffective their censorship model had become. Starting that winter, Moscow was rocked by a series of massive pro-democracy anti-Putin demonstrations — probably some of the biggest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Middle and upper class Muscovites — until then generally unpolitical — swarmed the center of Moscow in the dead of Russian winter to protest corrupt parliamentary elections and Vladimir Putin's de facto decree that he'd be be returning as President in 2012. Police and security goons cracked down hard on protesters: repeatedly arresting and roughing up hundreds of protesters and activists.

This political awakening among Moscow's urban class was coupled to wide proliferation and use of blogs, social networking and video sharing sites YouTube and Facebook, which were instrumental in spreading news, building organizations and creating a sense of community — filling the information vacuum imposed by Kremlin's clampdown on traditional print and broadcast news.

Videos of shady voting tactics and ballot stuffing were uploaded onto YouTube and spread virally via Twitter, Facebook and VKontake, Russia's Facebook clone. Russian digital wallet services like Yandex.Money were for the first time used to crowdfund opposition and political activity on a mass scale. Russian nationalist opposition leader Alexei Navalny — who is now under house arrest and extremely popular with Muscovite professionals — raised several hundred thousand dollars in just a few weeks through small individual donations.

Here's the NYT describing the protests in December 2011:

Younger protesters — so digitally connected that they broadcast the event live by holding iPads over their heads — said this was a day when a group that had been silent made itself heard.


The blogosphere has played a central role in mobilizing young Russians. During the parliamentary campaign, Russians using smartphones filmed authority figures cajoling or offering money to subordinates to get out the vote for United Russia. More video went online after Election Day, when many Russians in their 20s camped out in polling stations as amateur observers.

“We have a lot of evidence,” said Leonid Gigen, 26. “A lot was shot on video. And then Medvedev says these videos are fake. But people saw it themselves, because they voted.” Social media and the Internet did not spawn the protests — younger Russians' sense of political embarrassment over the way Putin blatantly ignored them and switched seats with Medvedev, taking back the Kremlin, did that — but the technology was widely and effectively used by the movement, and helped to amplify its power.

And it scared the scared the hell out of Putin and Russia's security apparatus.

Andrei Soldatov said Russia's security services reacted to the protests in panic. "They have no strategy for how to deal with Facebook," he said in 2011.  "They have focused for many, many years on methods and tactics to prevent any kind of demonstrations and street riots."

YouTube and Facebook were not small-time opposition websites or indie news outlets. They couldn't be simply DDoS'ed nor could they be blocked on the sly without too many people noticing. Equally important: these were American services operating outside Russia's legal jurisdiction — making effective surveillance of Russian users on those sites much more difficult.

As soon Putin assumed office in May 2012, his administration began taking steps to remedy the situation.

The first law came into effect in November 2012. It created an official blacklist of forbidden sites that had to be blocked by Russian ISPs. The law was authored by State Duma Deputy Yelena Mizulina, a stockier watered down Russian version of Phyllis Schlafly. Mizulina has become infamous for her crusades against gay rights and pedophiles — and she's now one of the seven Russian people sanctioned by the US government for Russia's annexation of Crimea.

According to her law, sites could be placed on blacklist for promoting drugs, pedophilia, child pornography, suicide and other things damaging to children. Over the next year and a half, other legislation was added and amended to include extremism, "gay propaganda," unsanctioned political organizing and all sorts of other vague and loosely defined activities.

Journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan reported that as part of this Internet censorship program, Russia began mandating that ISPs install deep packet inspection equipment, which would allow them to selectively censor content — like specific blog posts or videos — rather than black out entire websites. Keep in mind, the Kremlin is wary of showing their hand and blacking out entire sections of the Internet, which would be highly unpopular among the urban professional demographic, and therefore politically destabilizing.

And already in 2012, American Internet companies — among them Google — began meeting with Russian authorities to discuss how to best to implement the new censorship laws with the least disruption to their services. But that was just the beginning of an aggressive campaign to tighten the screws on foreign Internet companies operating Russia.

In December of 2012, Russia and a handful of other authoritarian regimes made a major push at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to break ICANN's dominance over the Internet, and devolve more power to regimes like the Kremlin looking to tighten control over their national Internet. Russia's effort failed, thanks in part to a worldwide human rights campaign to protect Internet freedom.

In 2013, those efforts got a huge by boost thanks to Edward Snowden's NSA leaks and his defection to Russia.

As Mark Ames reported here on Pando and in NSFWCORP, Snowden was a gift from heaven for Kremlin and FSB officials working to clamp down on the Russian Internet. As  luck should have it, Snowden's leaks, and the timing of his defection to Russia, came just as the administration was planning turn the screws on foreign tech companies, which had always been considered by Russian security services as de facto arms of the American government.

Snowden's leaks proved that American Internet companies were indeed in cahoots with American spies and were dangerous to Russian sovereignty—and a potential threat to the Putin clan's political control over Russia. Snowden's leaks were given wide play on Russian state television, helping to justify and whip up popular support for new Internet censorship laws. Right after Snowden came to Russia, legislators began calling for tighter controls over foreign Internet companies.

One of those legislators is Senator Ruslan Gattarov, who proposed putting foreign internet companies under "national controls" and made a big fuss about Gmail's email scanning/profiling technology being in violation of the Russian constitution and called for an investigation, threatening to ban Gmail altogether. Gattarov is right about Google's gross violation of users' privacy, but  what the senator really cared about was  whipping up political outrage in order to further clamp down Russia's Internet space and protect Putin's hold on power.

Gattarov also happens to be one of Edward Snowden's minders in Moscow. Gattarov organized a fundraising campaign for the former NSA spy, and announced that he was appointing Snowden as an advisor to Gattarov's Senate cyber-committee, where Gattarov has been drafting Internet censorship legislation under the guise of "protecting" Russia's privacy rights.

Last summer, the The New York Times wrote:

Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, fled the United States saying he did not want to live in a surveillance state.

But now the Russians are using his very presence here — on Friday Mr. Snowden said he intended to remain in Russia for some time while seeking asylum elsewhere — to push for tighter controls over the Internet.

Two members of Russia’s Parliament have cited Mr. Snowden’s leaks about N.S.A. spying as arguments to compel global Internet companies like Google and Microsoft to comply more closely with Russian rules on personal data storage.

These rules, rights groups say, might help safeguard personal data but also would open a back door for Russian law enforcement into services like Gmail.

“We need to quickly put these huge transnational companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook under national controls,” Ruslan Gattarov, a member of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, or Federation Council, said in an interview. “This is the lesson Snowden taught us.” Right now there are several such laws winding their way through Russia's Duma. One of the most drastic, co-authored by suspected polonium assassin Lugovoi, would force all Internet companies providing services within Russia to notify the government whenever a new Russian user signs up for their service and retain all user data and activity for a set period of time. The finer points of the law are still being hammered out, but it passed the first Duma reading in late February, and may very well be enacted soon.

Microsoft already signaled that it would comply with the legislation, if and when it becomes law. The question is: Will Google? Will Facebook? And if not, will they simply exit Russia altogether like they did in China?

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Russia's sudden ramping up of Internet censorship is genuinely frightening, and does not bode well for the future. But the part about forcing foreign tech companies to share data with Russia's security services — well, to be fair, that makes a lot of sense.

Just look at it from Russia's point of view: Imagine that some of the most popular email, messaging, social networking sites and mobile phone platforms in America were run by Russian companies. Imagine the digital information of several hundred million Americans — private and business info — would be siphoned out of the U.S. and stored on servers located in Russia, where it would be out of the reach of U.S. courts and subject only to Russian law. Imagine further that all the information that passed through these services could be legally obtained by the Russian government and the FSB with a simple court order...but completely out of reach of US authorities. Oh, and on top of everything, imagine that some of these Russian companies have extremely close ties and tech-sharing agreements with Russia's military and intelligence community.

Then imagine that Occupy Wall Street, anti-Keystone XL pipeline protests and all kinds of domestic opposition political activity would be organized through these Russian-controlled social networks. But don't stop there: imagine if a huge chunk of America's digital life — the personal and business information of several hundred million people —  was funneled through the servers of a foreign and hostile country, where they'd be wide open to analysis and interception by the FSB.

Imagining all of that is all you can do, because it would never be allowed to happen. America would have a massive nationalist McCarthyite freakout. You know it, I know it, dogs know it.

How violently would America respond? Well, consider the Dubai Ports World fiasco. Back in 2006, America's political system went into nationalist, anti-Muslim convulsions just because a Dubai-owned company was going to take over management of a handful of US shipping ports. Politicians and pundits freaked out that America was handing over the contract to a foreign entity. Of course, those ports were already being handled by a British company — but the thought of a Middle Eastern state overseeing the transfer of goods in and out of the country was too much. Even then-Senator Barack Obama got his nationalism on.  California Senator Barbara Boxer didn't hold back, either, saying that it was "ridiculous" to allow a "nation that has ties to 9/11 to take over part of our port operations." And so the deal crashed and burned, despite being supported by the entire Bush administration.

With US neocons ready to go all out against Russia, treating it like Cuba or Iran over the annexation of Crimea, Putin has all the reason — and political cover — he needs to squeeze American tech companies harder and harder. As he does so, the freedom of Russian Internet users will continue to be eroded down to oblivion.

Want to know more? Read Pando's coverage of Surveillance Valley and the Google Military-Surveillance Complex.

[image via thinkstock]