The controversial law on personal data that took force this week was met with mixed feelings within Russia. Is the Kremlin really trying to tighten the screws to impose more online censorship?
Facebook's director of small business Jonathan Czaja is filmed while giving a speech at Facebook's Boost Your Business Nashville event, Aug. 27, 2015. Photo: AP.
For a very different take, read: "Why the Kremlin wants real control over the virtual world."
The Federal Law “On the Storage of Personal Data,” which prohibits foreign websites from storing personal information about Russian users on servers abroad and requires that the location of such servers be made known, came into force on Sept. 1. To be precise, the document signed on Dec. 31, 2014 by Russian President Vladimir Putin only made a few amendments to the federal law passed on July 21, 2014.
The amendments, together with Roskomnadzor’s attempt in late August to block a Wikipedia page, prompted fears that Russians could soon be deprived of access to Western social networks and the lion’s share of foreign online services.
Comparisons abounded with China, which blocks many online resources domestically, and even with North Korea, which has created its own internal network with no outlet to the outside world.
But where will the actions of the Russian government ultimately lead? Could access to Western news resources, social networks and popular services really disappear in Russia? Or does Moscow simply want to “restore order” in its virtual segment to ensure the safety of citizens and the state?
It should be stated that Sept. 1 did not introduce any significant changes. What’s more, Roskomnadzor does not intend to verify the compliance of mainstream services with the personal data law until 2016.
Financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, etc.) are first in line. Moreover, Roskomnadzor has made it clear that many Internet resources, such as online booking services, are exempt from the changes in the law on personal data.
However, one of the Kremlin’s end goals is undoubtedly to facilitate state control over social network users and bloggers. This is logical from a security perspective, since ISIS and semi-underground radical extremist groups operate and recruit online.
But the changes in the law will not do much to help tackle that particular problem. Today’s high-tech security services can already gather a great deal of information about illegal online activity, although at present it requires considerable resources to do so.
Online criminals will never deliberately leave a genuine data trail and will always use social networks and other resources under pseudonyms and fictitious names.
Meanwhile, the Sept. 1 amendments provide no additional capabilities to monitor, for instance, traffic to sites posting criticism of the Russian government.
Incidentally, it is the availability of “anti-Russian” resources that distinguishes Russia from China and North Korea. Whereas “enemy” radio stations were often jammed in the Soviet Union, the Russian government is now playing by the rules.
Any user of the Runet (Russian Internet) can access the Russian-language Ukrainian UNIAN and Baltic Delphi news resources, as well as other electronic media that frequently adopt a blatant anti-Russian policy or publish unflattering remarks about the Russian leadership.
An excellent example is the popular online portal meduza.io, which operates out of Riga. Created by former employees of the Russian online portal Lenta, the site delivers a constant stream of harsh criticism about the realities of modern Russia and the lives of Russian oppositionists.
The portal is accessible not only to Russians, and its articles are widely distributed in Russian social networks, such as Vkontakte (often called "the Russian Facebook"), which takes into account the preferences of its users.
Tellingly, August’s blocking of Wikipedia had nothing to do with politics. Roskomnadzor simply demanded the removal of a Russian-language article containing information about how to make the drug charas.
Indeed, Russia’s drug laws are the subject of debate for being overly restrictive. Suffice it to recall the many controversies over the difficulties faced by cancer patients in obtaining an analgesic.
But the incident was hardly a direct violation of the human right to free access to information. Western media are still available to Russian users, and are not blocked even for posting radical anti-Russian rhetoric.
At the same time, if one takes as axiomatic the Kremlin’s desire to protect itself from a “Twitter revolution” (which failed in Iran in 2009, but helped bring down governments during the so-called Arab Spring), we see that the law on personal data could in theory be the tool that enables the Russian authorities to screen off an entire segment of the Internet.
The governments of Tunisia and Egypt, meanwhile, cited not the law, but the need to ensure security when blocking online resources. That means that if Moscow wants to use the law on personal data to urgently block sites, it needs to substantiate what constitutes a violation of the law by such resources, which will take time — something that will be in short supply in the case of a major disturbance.
Likewise, Roskomnadzor cannot disconnect a site from the Runet without notifying its administrators of the violation and proposing that it be rectified. That also takes time. Hence, the newly enacted law is hardly a panacea against “Twitter revolutions.”
It is questionable how the new provisions of the law will be enforced. Major players such as Facebook and Google will hardly make concessions to Moscow. Besides, Facebook in Russia is less popular than Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.
According to the Levada Center, as of summer 2014 only 18 percent of Russian citizens had a Facebook account, against 80 percent for Odnoklassniki and 57 percent for Vkontakte.
However, Facebookers generally belong to the more socially active stratum of Russian society.
A Kremlin ban on Facebook and other Western social networks would cause serious protests and, more significantly, alienate users who are either pro-government or politically indifferent. Moscow is very unlikely to go down that route.
Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky has already explained that social networks do not store sensitive personal information, such as passport details, information about money transfers, etc. Although it will be difficult to verify compliance with the law by Google, Facebook and others, they are not the primary targets for Russian officials.
Of course, this statement can be interpreted in two ways, including as an admission by the Kremlin that it cannot defeat Western social networks.
But they and their users are unlikely to be threatened any time soon. Conversely, Facebook is just as much a propaganda tool for Moscow as it is for the West.
All told, there is no threat of a Russian version of the Great Firewall of China — the Kremlin is simply slowly restoring a little bit of order in the Runet.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.