Here are the major trends that impacted the Russian Internet and social media in 2014 and will continue to influence the development of the online world in 2015.
Russia's State Duma adopted a series of controversial laws regualting the Internet in 2014. Photo: AP
2014 has seen some contradictory trends in the development of the Russian Internet (often called the RuNet). On the one hand, the development of the RuNet seems to be embracing the best practices in the area of e-government, including the establishment of the institution of the Internet Ombudsman in July 2014 and the re-launch of Russia’s oldest Internet civil society group intended to defend Internet users’ rights.
On the other hand, amidst Russia-West confrontation over Ukraine, there have been an increasing number of restrictive legislative measures that have been narrowing the online space at almost all levels of its governance. This, in turn, spurs talks about further fragmentation (or nationalization) of the global Internet, as the RuNet appears to be walling itself off from the outside world. At any rate, 2014 has been rich with interesting and controversial events that impacted the Russian Internet and social media. Here are these trends.
1. Fears about the Internet kill-switch system in Russia
October saw the growth of fears and rumors that Russia’s Security Council might give the green light to a bill that could allow the Kremlin to switch off Russia's Internet in case of an emergency situation (the so-called “kill-switch” system), for example, during a war or large-scale protests.
Even though this move was met with criticism and was seen as a warning sign for Internet freedoms in Russia, many experts regarded such a possibility as exaggerated, pointing out that it was rather the possibility of an external cut-off that triggered the discussion. However, the rumors about an Internet ‘kill-switch’ being devised in Russia sent other signals across the world.
In fact, the government’s summer cyber drill reportedly revealed vulnerabilities in RuNet security infrastructure preparedness against potential external aggression. This produced calls for the creation of a self-contained system duplicating the root Domain Name System (DNS) architecture to keep the RuNet running in case of emergency. This could be either an external threat, which is no longer seen as hypothetical in the current belligerent geopolitical context, or an internal threat, in case of civil disorder or extremist actions.
Even though a special Security Council meeting reassured that no ‘Internet switch off’ or state takeover is planned, it would be right to assume further strengthening of the RuNet at the level of critical cyber-infrastructure as a part of national security capacities.
2. The law on personal data
One of the most controversial events in the RuNet in 2014 was the adoption of the law on personal data storage that obliges foreign Internet companies to store information about Russian citizens on Russian-based servers. Technically speaking, the law restricts the collection, retention, processing, and storage of Russian citizens’ personal data by Internet operators on Russian territory.
Initially meant to come into force on Sept. 1, 2016 it caused a lot of panic in the industry when a new deadline – Jan. 1, 2015 – was hastily established as a result of the first and second readings of the bill in the State Duma. In fact, these amendments to the bill put at stake the presence and the very existence of many Internet businesses, including giant foreign technology companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, whose operations were very difficult to integrate in the Russian jurisdiction.
The decision not to go ahead with the deadline amendment first sent hopeful signals to the players that the regulator had taken a milder position following a number of consultations with industry leaders. However, a new target deadline of Sept. 1, 2015 was adopted in December by the Duma in second and third readings as a compromise date.
Data Center Manager walks in one of the server rooms at the Facebook Data Center, its first outside the U.S., in Swedish Lapland. Photo: AFP
While most industry players remain skeptical about the feasibility of compliance with the law by the deadline, labeled as the citizens’ data protection efforts, data localization does not ensure security per se, and this distinction often gets lost in the official talk about the issue.
Google’s subsequent news about its intention to withdraw its engineering staff from Russia was taken by many as a sign of desperation after a series of consultations between the company and Russia’s main Internet regulator Roskomnadzor earlier this year. Nevertheless, Google insists that it’s not shutting down its operations altogether and plans further investment into the Russian market next year.
3. Blocking opposition Web pages on social media
As big Internet firms generally come under much more regulatory push now from governments all around the world, the Kremlin devised more tools to carry out pressure on Internet companies in Russia. In particular, the authorities adopted amendments to the law on information security that came into force in February 2014 and was dubbed as a “political censorship law.” It allows pre-court blocking of websites instigating riots, extremist or terrorist actions, thus extending the outreach of the original law fighting child pornography, suicide and drugs promotion.
Coupled with the requirement that Internet Service Providers (ISP) and telecommunication companies store data for at least six months, this builds an increasingly powerful ecosystem for information and communications control.
The most recent case of blocking web pages in social media is indicative. When requested by Roskomnadzor to block the support meet-up pages of Russian opposition leader and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Facebook and Twitter did it immediately, preventing Russians from access to these pages. Under house arrest now, Navalny is accused of embezzling money and might be sentenced to 10 years in prison on Jan. 15, 2015. His supporters organized the groups in social media to organize previously unsanctioned meetings. Roskomnadzor has viewed these meetings as instigating civil unrest and requested Facebook and Twitter to block them.
This case is a good illustration of how the mechanism is intended to work in theory. Leaving aside a number of ways to circumvent the blockings, it does not prove particularly efficient as new groups and ‘events’ keep popping up which the platforms can hardly closely monitor in real time, and the only logical solution would be to block the resources altogether. Roskomnadzor seems reluctant to take drastic measures, which would be futile today when information is instantly spread out through the Internet.
4. Social media as a tool during civil wars and terror campaigns
Social media platforms that have already proven a powerful tool globally during the Arab Spring events and other conflicts are now globally used for online activism, and the outreach is not limited by regional conflicts. For example, jihadist groups recruit followers though social media worldwide to promote their ideas and raise funds in a targeted manner, as the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) has revealed.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have recently become more responsive to states’ requests to remove extremist content, although the trade-off between security and the freedom of speech is traditionally a difficult one in the West. In Russia VKontakte (VK) is extensively used by ISIS recruiters, and more attention can be expected from the law enforcement bodies; however, as the example above shows, blocking individual groups or content is not a panacea. New routes for information exchange come up quicker than action is taken.
Likewise, social networks have also been instrumental for propaganda and the information war during the Ukrainian crisis on both sides. Apart from Twitter wars, the battles continue in VK and Odnoklassniki – the two most popular social networks in Ukraine which happen to be Russian, and are in full compliance with the Russian regulator. However, the digital part of this hybrid war is increasingly mighty and hard to control due to its scope and speed of action.
One of the participants in the rally near Odessa's police office, who demand release of all anti-Maidan protesters detained after Friday's clashes on the city's Kulikovo Field. Photo: RIA Novosti / Anton Kruglov
5. Russian SOPA vs. Internet pirates
The consolidation of the three key Russian social networks (Odnoklassniki, Moy Mir and VK) in single hands after Mail.ru Group bought 48 percent of VK from UCP in September 2014 is good news for the anti-piracy campaign in Russia. The anti-piracy law, dubbed as ‘Russian SOPA’, passed in June 2013 to allow pre-court blocking of websites with unlawfully uploaded video content (films, TV series etc), was extended in summer 2014.
The amendments to the law deal with all content uploaded in violation of copyright (music, software, books etc), except photos. The mechanism of restricting access to web resources is now extended to embrace resources that publish links to the illegal content. In addition, if a web resource is found in repeated violation of copyright the whole website can be blacklisted and blocked through a lawsuit and a subsequent court decision, even if the content if removed.
The rigor of this initiative leaves a lot of doubts about its effectiveness. It is, however, instrumental for the work being done for a major cleanup in the key Russian social networks – Odnoklassniki, Moy Mir and VK, the latter being seen as the ultimate resource of illegal copyright content.
6. “Right to be forgotten” on the Internet
2014 saw some changes in Google’s activity in Europe. The recognition of the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ by the European Court of Justice, which allows EU citizens to ask Google (whose search engine controls about 90 percent of the European market) to remove from its search results outdated information, has arguably marked a crucial precedent. Now as Microsoft and Yahoo are joining the effort, the EU authorities are launching a new debate on extending the ruling for the non-European Google.com domain too.
This precedent would be interesting in the Russian context as the Roskomnadzor officials have voiced a few times their interest in putting similar pressure on Google for Russian users. Given that Google’s share of the search market has grown from 26 percent in 2012 to over 32 percent in 2014, this is not surprising. The launch of a ‘secure’ national search engine and information hub Sputnik in May 2014 gives a hint that further regulation might follow to make it more competitive against such giants as Yandex and Google.
7. Bitcoin is booming elsewhere, but not in Russia
The year 2014 has seen a further interest in cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin. In fact despite the lack of a unified regulatory approach to the phenomenon in the world and a perceived threat to the centralized banking infrastructures, there are some signs of its slow integration into the system. For example, Microsoft has recently started working with Bitcoin following the example of Dell, Expedia and PayPal. In addition, Black Friday sales in the U.S. reveal a growing share of Bitcoin deals.
A bill put forward by the Russian Ministry of Finance suggests fines for Bitcoin use and promotion as a ‘monetary surrogate’ prohibited by law. It was preceded by suggestions of introducing a criminal offense for Bitcoin use, but for now the authorities seem to have opted for a milder and exploratory position. However, given the ongoing creation of the national payment system as an alternative to Visa and MasterCard at times when national security tops the agenda, Bitcoin and similar rivals will certainly remain on the regulatory radar and at a safe distance.
8. Law on bloggers
Another event that fuels fears about Internet control in Russia is the so-called law on bloggers, adopted during the summer. Under this law, bloggers with more than 3,000 daily readers should register with the country’s regulator Roskomnadzor as media and as organizers of information dissemination (OIDs). All this means that such bloggers should follow the regulations that govern Russia’s largest media outlets.
In addition, it gives the Russian authorities the access to the information of user metadata. Moreover, the law contains measures requiring social networks to retain six months of their users’ data; it also obliges bloggers to reveal their identity and prohibits them from being anonymous. Besides, the information must be stored on servers based in Russian territory, so that government authorities can gain access.
Apart from the expected chilling effect of the law on the online public sphere, it represents another step in communications and data control by the authorities. Coupled with the data localization law, this certainly gives a boost to the data storage industry in Russia.