Bending the Internet: Russia Catches Up on Internet Control

3 MINS READJun 22, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Russian riot police restrain a protester at a demonstration in Moscow in May over the Kremlin's decision to ban the messaging app Telegram.

Russian riot police restrain a protester at a demonstration in Moscow in May over the Kremlin's decision to ban the messaging app Telegram.

  • After taking a hands-off approach to cyberspace in his first decade in office, Russian President Vladimir Putin has cracked down on internet use over the past few years.
  • His administration has made it easier for authorities to suppress opposition movements online and to filter undesirable content by steadily empowering the Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media.
  • It has also proposed the development of an alternative internet, demonstrating Russia's broader ambition to break from the traditional network model Western countries have long championed and dominated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's view of the internet has evolved alongside the internet itself. When Putin first came to power at the turn of the century, Russian cyberspace was the Wild West. He didn't try to exert much control over it for the first decade of his rule, and a class of highly proficient programmers and hackers emerged and flourished in the largely lawless environment. But after a string of Western-supported uprisings in nearby former Soviet states, and a wave of mass protests in Russia after the 2011 elections, Putin's perception of the internet changed. In the years since, the Kremlin has been vigilant in monitoring domestic internet use, using some of the same strategies that Iran and China favor.

The Big Picture

The internet is constantly evolving — and with it, national and global policies to regulate the technology's use. Unfiltered access to and unmonitored movement of information pose a strategic risk for many states. Now that most countries have roughly 25 years of experience honing their strategies to handle the freedoms and cultural changes that the internet unleashed on the world, their tactics for manipulating its use are becoming more sophisticated. This is the final installment of a five-part series examining the policies and tactics that Iran, China, Turkey and Russia have devised to mitigate the threats — and exploit the opportunities — of the internet.


To get a better handle on the internet, Putin's government has passed dozens of laws and issued decrees to beef up the Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media — known by the Russian acronym Roskomnadzor. The agency now routinely blocks and filters content and pressures internet service providers to monitor activity. A law passed in 2014, in fact, empowered it to block content — without the need for a court ruling — that it determined to be a threat to public order. In addition, the government regularly filters out content on its foreign policy initiatives abroad, such as Russia's involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and in Syria. And under the conditions of the so-called "bloggers' law," any Russian resident with more than 3,000 online followers must register with the government.

Internet Freedom in Key Countries, 2017

Over the past few years, the Kremlin's efforts to control the internet increasingly have crept into the physical world as well. A law took effect in 2015 requiring websites with users in Russia to begin storing data on those users in the country. Moscow has been slow to enforce the measure, hesitant to provoke protests over access to international sites, but in 2016, Roskomnadzor blocked its first foreign website, LinkedIn, for noncompliance. It followed up this year by banning the messaging app Telegram in April. The Kremlin even has discussed creating a kill switch to cut access to the internet nationwide if it saw fit, though it has also announced plans to launch a new global internet by August.

Like Turkey, China and Iran, Russia is working to create an alternative to the traditional internet model that the West has largely built and dominated, as it tries to enhance its control over cyberspace. These countries are fighting an uphill battle, but they are on the front lines. And as the internet — still only a few decades old — matures, so will these and other states' attempts to exploit it for their benefit, at home and abroad.

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