The year 2019 marked many milestones in the long struggle of the Russian Government to control the Internet. Laws were passed against the distribution of “false news” or disrespect to online authorities. Fines against digital companies that refused to maintain data on Russian users in Russian territory were increased. A law was published that extends the concept of “foreign agents” to individual internet users. Last but not least, the long-awaited bill on “Sovereign Internet” finally came into effect.
For ten consecutive years, Agora, a Russian legal organization, and Roskomsvoboda, an NGO that monitors digital rights in Russia, have published a joint annual report on the state of Internet freedom in Russia. His most recent report, published on February 4, draws some troubling conclusions about what awaits the RuNet in the coming years.
The report points to a significant increase in attempts to disconnect some regions or areas of the Internet in times of political conflict. This possibility, although allowed by the Russian federal law on communications, had not been fully used by large-scale authorities until 2019, when internet blockades occurred in the Arkhangelsk, Buryatia, Ingushetia, Pskov region and, most notably , in Moscow, during protests against the authorities' refusal to allow independent opposition candidates to run for local elections.
However, the report also cites a marked decrease in the number of criminal prosecutions for online activities: from 384 cases in 2018 to 200 in 2019. The authors attribute it to the partial decriminalization of the controversial article 282 of the Criminal Code, regarding incitement to hate The partial decriminalization of this act resulted in an additional act to the Administrative Code, under which criminal liability for incitement to hatred now only occurs after repeated violations for one year. In the first half of 2019 alone, 158 people were prosecuted under this new administrative act. However, article 282 is still fully implemented, as evidenced by the prominent case of blogger Vladislav Sinitsa, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2019 for his comments on Twitter about the fate of the children of riot police officers responsible for hitting Protesters in Moscow. The prosecution for online activity is apparently becoming a more common tactic to complement existing convictions against political opponents, as evidenced by attempts to restrict internet access by Yegor Zhukov, a libertarian activist with many followers on YouTube.
Another administrative act that had an impact on RuNet users was the inaccurate drafting law for disrespecting online authorities and state power holders. In 2019, it was applied 78 times, 44 specifically referred to disrespectful language about Vladimir Putin.
Undoubtedly, according to the report, one of the biggest innovations was the “sovereign internet” campaign in the country. The purpose of this package of laws and amendments is to allow the State to take control of the digital infrastructure in Russia in times of instability, so that RuNet would be separated from the rest of the global network. Accordingly, the authors of the report predict a marked intensification of the pressure on information technology companies and Internet providers, who will be responsible for applying the increasingly difficult demands on IP surveillance and inspection. of all incoming traffic. Digital companies are already subject to higher fines for refusing to hand over user data to Russian authorities, which also demanded that all digital devices sold in the country come with pre-installed computer programs approved by the Government.
The authors also relate these trends to the arrest of Alexei Soldatov, a leading figure in the foundation of the RuNet, accused of fraud. Prosecutors accuse him of sending hundreds of thousands of IP addresses previously managed by a Russian research institute to foreign control. Since the sovereign momentum of the Internet also requires the creation of a national domain system, the report speculates that the arrest was motivated by Soldatov's refusal to transfer control of the .su domains to the State (of “Soviet Union ”) And .rf (from“ Russian Federation ”), which historically controlled the Soldatov Internet Development Foundation.
Blocking “undesirable” websites continued at an accelerated rate. In the first nine months of 2019, Russia's state communications surveillance agency Roskomnadzor and the Ministry of Interior jointly classified more than 270,000 websites as undesirable, almost a third more than in the same period of 2018. The authors point out that another 4.74 million web pages, although not blocked, are associated with IP addresses in the authorities block list. In 2019 there was also a final blockade of the ProtonMail secure messaging service and other failures in the long state battle to restrict access to the Telegram banned messaging service. Several popular independent news websites, such as Meduza, The Village and Batka, Da Vy Transformator, fell into the state's attempts to restrict online narcotics information, and were not available in Russia at various points. However, many users reported that they could still access these websites and other blocked resources through private virtual networks, even though their access was formally blocked.
The increasing amount of legislation, the bold objectives for digital control and the unmanageable expectations that are now being put in digital companies will make 2020 a difficult year for RuNet. But the authors conclude that, although the picture is bleak, do not underestimate the inventiveness of RuNet users:
Чиновники постепенно перестают считать ограничение свободы слова исключительной мерой, применяемой в крайних случаях, рассматривая блокировки сайтов, преследование пользователей и ограничение прав российских и зарубежных СМИ как инструмент политической борьбы и способ противостоять Западу в информационной войне. (…)
Власти после ряда колебаний несколько лет назад определились с основным вектором политики в отношении российского сегмента интернета – контроль, цензура и изоляция. Конечная цель – создание суверенного интернета наподобие китайско-северокорейского. В ушедшем году для достижения этой цели были приняты ключевые нормативные акты.
Главная интрига заключается в том, насколько удастся реализовать задуманное. Пока подобные инициативы либо даже не стартуют (пакет Яровой о хранении и расшифровке трафика), либо не удаются (блокировка Telegram, запрет криптовалют), либо легко обходятся (многочисленные блокировки сайтов). Как и прежде, пользователи интернета довольно быстро обучаются, подстраиваются под среду, а технологии идут вперед, бесконечно расширяя фронт борьбы с охранителями и усложняя методы противодействия свободному распространению информации.
Officials are gradually ceasing to consider the restriction of freedom of expression as an exceptional measure to be taken in extreme situations. Website blockages, harassment of users and limitations of Russian and foreign media rights have become instruments in a political struggle and a way to counteract the West in an information war (…)
The authorities, after several hesitations a few years ago, have determined their political trajectory in relation to the Russian internet sector: censorship and isolation control. The ultimate goal is the creation of a sovereign internet that resembles the Chinese and North Korean models. In the last year, several key acts were approved to achieve this objective.
The key intrigue lies in the extent to which this plan can be realized. For the moment, these initiatives have either not been launched seriously (such as the Yarovaya package on storage and decryption of traffic), or they have failed (such as the blocking of the telegram and the prohibition of cryptocurrencies), Or they can easily evade (such as multiple blocks of websites).