This week a new law on personal data came into force, which means that Russia's federal communication agency might ban foreign websites and even social media. That’s causing considerable concern that the Kremlin is asserting control over the virtual world.
A boy is looking at Russian site Vkontakte at an Internet cafe in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AP.
For a very different take, read: "Relax, the Kremlin isn't trying to block Facebook, Twitter."
Sept. 1 saw the enactment of Russia’s new law on personal data, which requires foreign companies that handle personal data of Russian citizens to process and store such information inside Russia. Failure to do so will result in being placed in the so-called “register of offenders” operated by Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Telecoms, Information Technology and Mass Communications).
Roskomnadzor could instruct internet service providers (ISP) to restrict access to online resources in the register, or even block them. The primary target is likely to be social networks, including Facebook, which has refused to host Russian user data on Russian servers because it does not consider such information to be personal.
The signing of the law last year was the latest in a long line of steps taken by the Kremlin to consolidate political control over the Internet. The story goes back further than that.
After the Unified Register of Banned Sites was created in Russia in 2012, the department in charge of it, Roskomnadzor, turned into a regular supplier of domestic news. The clampdown on sites included ones critical of the regime (grani.ru, kasparov.ru, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Livejournal blog, etc.), which gave rise to accusations of unconstitutional political censorship by the government.
However, until very recently, the government refrained from blocking major transnational companies such as Twitter, Facebook or Google. This symbolic Rubicon was crossed on Aug. 24, when Roskomnadzor blocked the Russian-language Wikipedia site for several hours (for posting an article on the narcotic drug charas, allegedly containing instructions for making it).
And although the block was lifted almost immediately, the episode caused many in Russia to wonder whether the Kremlin’s online reach was extending beyond the political opposition and into the lives of users unrelated to politics. Free access to the world’s largest encyclopedic resource had been threatened. The blocking of the digital archive Wayback Machine only compounded such fears.
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As can be seen from current events, Russia’s leaders do not see a threat in the restriction of freedom, but rather, in freedom itself. In the mindset of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer and admirer of Yuri Andropov (the KGB head whose first move on becoming Secretary General in 1982 was to “strengthen discipline”), the priority, which runs counter to freedom, is to “restore order” and establish full state control over all spheres of public life.
This essentially absolutist state model was not devised by Putin — it is natural for Russia, having been developed and honed by generations of tsars and Communist leaders. However, the realities of the 21st century are making their own adjustments.
Political opposition, critically minded intelligentsia, insurrection and revolution are all challenges well understood by Russia’s ruling class, for it was in opposition to them that Russian political absolutism was born, acquired its characteristic traits, and somehow learned how to deal with such movements.
But the old challenges have been supplemented by something entirely new, something against which there is as yet no antidote: the virtual platform for communication, utilization of knowledge and self-organization known as the Internet.
How the Kremlin is trying to put the Russian Internet in order
If the current political regime in Russia lasts a while longer (which is likely), the fight for control of the virtual space will become more acute. The outcome of this struggle will determine whether Russian authoritarianism can exist in the realities of the information and post-information society, or whether it will be replaced by something else.
To view the attempts by the Russian authorities to restrict and control citizens’ online activity purely in terms of censorship and the desire to root out any germ of political competition is to seriously underestimate the nature of the growing confrontation.
The stakes in this struggle are much higher than simple political censorship. It is about the ability or inability of the authorities to control vast swathes of social interaction and “restore order” in the virtual network — just as their predecessors once did in unruly Novgorod, the rebellious kingdom of Poland and Communist East Germany.
In the blocking and unblocking (several hours later) of Wikipedia, the annulment of Roskomnadzor’s decision, the “victory of common sense,” and the strong position taken by the Russian-language division of Wikipedia are of secondary importance. For the authorities, the incident was primarily a kind of test, similar to firing an intercontinental ballistic missile and downing it soon after launch.
The “exercise” showed that the system works. Wikipedia was disabled, the next morning no one tried to storm the Kremlin, and the training target can now be replaced by real “military” objectives: political opponents, out-of-favor companies, “improper” artists, and anyone else who communicates with an audience virtually.
One of the long-term challenges that Russian authoritarianism has historically faced — and continues to face — is the preeminence of task setting over goals, instrumentation over results. The construction of a universal and absolute system of state control requires so much time and effort that in the end everyone simply forgets why it was created in the first place and what the reason is for such huge outlays, other than to satisfy the ambitions of political leaders and achieve abstract goals such as “national greatness.”
In days gone by, worn out by the struggle for political control (first internal, then international), the national economy would begin to decline and Russia would experience a period of turmoil. Anarchy and chaos would break out and rule for a while before the general urge to “restore order” returned.
Revolving in this closed circle, Russia let slip many chances for progress and prosperity, and seems set to continue this lamentable tradition in the 21st century.
Periods of modernization and rapid development occurred in Russia only when the political elite became aware of innovations as indispensable for maintaining order and expand its influence. That does not seem to be the case today: Modernization and development of Internet technologies are viewed by the Kremlin as ambiguous processes able to move Russia forward only at the cost of weakening state control over society. That is not a price the authoritarian elite is willing to pay for progress.
The Great Firewall of Russia?
Cautious optimism comes from the fact that the government’s struggle with the virtual community is entering a new phase in which social demand for “restoring order” is almost completely deflated, although not yet off the official agenda. By force of habit, state institutions continue to come up with new prohibitions and restrictions, but the day is approaching when the counter-productive nature of cracking down is understood at the very top, too.
The criterion for the regime’s political survival in this situation will be the ability to remain balanced on the edge without resorting to a Chinese or even North Korean-style block of the “Western” Internet. If that proves impossible (as some Russian experts believe), it will mean the state’s capitulation and recognition of its inability to “restore order” in this new segment of society, since order through prohibition is merely the imitation of order.
Also read: "Does Russia really want a fragmented Internet?"
The experience of China, which shows that YouTube and Facebook can be blocked in a vast country without social upheaval, should not serve as modern Russia’s guiding star.
The “Great Firewall of China” emerged during a time of national economic revival, almost simultaneously with the development of the Internet itself in China. That fact underpins its acceptance in society as an unavoidable inconvenience.
In today’s crisis-hit Russia, the public has had a taste of virtual freedom. Any frontal attack on Wikipedia, Twitter or Facebook will not be perceived as a sign of strength, but of desperation. Most likely the Kremlin understands this and will not slide down the slippery slope to mass censorship and blocking entire segments of the World Wide Web.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.