Standort: / Meldung: "Shrinking Online Freedom in Russia"

Charles Maynes Moscow

Journalist in Moscow

11. 7. 2014 - 14:50

Shrinking Online Freedom in Russia

A new Duma law requires foreign tech firms to provide the security services with "back door" access to all user data. It gives the Kremlin a powerful new tool to monitor perceived enemies at home.

Ever since giving former NSA contractor Edward Snowden asylum in Russia last year, the Kremlin has showcased Snowden's revelations of excessive US government surveillance at every turn. Take, for example, the time when the American was given a prime time – and very scripted – opportunity to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin a question during Putin's annual national call-in show this past April. „So I'd like to ask you,“ Snowden queried the Russian leader through a scratchy Skype line, „does Russia intercept store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of Internet users?“ Mr. Putin, of course, used the opportunity to assure that Russia used surveillance only with strict permission of the courts. Unlike „someone we know“.

But Russian Internet activists argue that position is disingenuous. Online surveillance practices have persisted in Russia for years – and are getting more restrictive by the day. SORM, a Russian surveillance network akin to the U.S. PRISM program famously revealed by Snowden, has long forced local Internet providers to install surveillance equipment to monitor communications on behalf of Russia's secret services. Only SORM had one flaw: it couldn't penetrate foreign data networks.

Plakat von Wladimir Putin

Charles Maynes

A "United Russia" campaign poster for Putin that reads: "Listening to the People. Working for the People."

That issue now appears solved. Under another one of several new laws passed by Russia's Duma this month, western tech companies hoping to do business in Russia must host their servers on Russian soil starting in 2016 or go dark. Authorities insist the move is necessary to protect Russians privacy data from the American government. But observers say the law's real purpose is to give Russia's security services „back door“ access to sensitive user profile data held by tech giants such as Google, Twitter and Facebook. Paradoxically, the country that took in Snowden to highlight U.S. surveillance is now using those revelations to justify their own program.

„After Snowden's revelations... our authorities said, 'Ok, we don't want the Americans to monitor our people, we want to monitor them‘“, says Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer and Internet activist with the Russian Association of Internet Users. Whether tech companies will comply is unclear. Representatives from leading tech firms insist no deals have been struck. But the situation, say Internet security analysts, appears murkier.

„Two years ago, I never thought that say Twitter would block something on the request by Russian authorities. Or that the same might happen with Facebook. Or Google. Now we have plenty of examples,“ says Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist with, a news service specializing in coverage of Russia's security services. Soldatov cites the blockage of Twitter accounts into Russia by radical activists in post-revolutionary Ukraine as a recent example of government-private-sector-cooperation.

Officially, the new Internet-related legislation is part of a broader Russian anti-terrorism bill. But investigative reporter Andrei Soldatov of says the measures collectively represent a restrictive trend aimed at „instigating censorship“ across broad levels of Russian society. „And we see how the media landscape and how people talk online is already changing. In my circle, my friends... [they're] more cautious about expressing their views“, he says.

And with good reason: In recent months, websites of several leading opposition figures – such as the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny and the chessmaster-turned-Putin-critic Gary Kasparov– have been blocked outright (Navalny is currently under house arrest and banned from using the Internet. Kasparov fled abroad earlier this year.). So did several online news organizations on charges of „extremism“. Staff reporters counter the moves are punishment for nuanced coverage of the events in Kiev this past winter. Other Internet-related laws have since been introduced to compliment the so-called „server law.“

For example, another law requires bloggers with readerships of over 3,000 to register as media outlets – thereby exposing them to libel suits for content and reader comments. Imagine, for example, trying to cleanse a comments section from profanity – yet another newly criminalized act passed this summer by the Duma. Even everyday users now face potential penalties: simply retweet a message on Twitter that authorities deem „extremist“ and plan on spending the next five years in prison.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is displayed on the television screens in a press center in Moscow as he asks a question to Russian President Vladimir Putin

EPA/yp mpc yak

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is displayed on the television screens in a press center in Moscow as he asks a question to Russian President Vladimir Putin

Still, Russian pro-democracy activists argue the laws are there to be enforced selectively. Leonid Volkov, a Russian political blogger, says they exist to target select individuals out of favor with the authorities. „Of course, they won't bother monitoring everyone,“ Volkov says. „But if they attack, say, an opposition member, then enforcing these laws becomes very useful.“ Others say the situation is worrisome because of an additional fact: with traditional media largely under state control, the Internet has come to serve as many Russians‘ primary source for independent news and unfettered debate.

It's a debate the government now seems determined to moderate.

Sarkis Darbinyan, the lawyer and Internet activist, says the authorities came to understand that the Internet wielded enormous power. „Particularly after the Arab Spring, after the events in Ukraine. And I think it scares certain people in the Kremlin that this could happen in Russia“, he tells FM4. It was just a little more than two years ago that Russia's opposition used the Internet to help organize mass street protests against President Vladimir Putin's return to power. That protest movement ultimately fizzled, and President Putin's popularity is at record highs among Russians for his annexation of Crimea last February.

Still, authorites have remained highly skeptical of the influence of the web, and social media in particular. Mr. Putin recently referred to the Internet as a „CIA Project.“ The new laws now give the Kremlin a range of new powerful tools to monitor perceived enemies at home. Which is to say that – in this summer season – Russia's Internet users may find their best bet is to unplug and talk to their friends. Their real friends, for a change.