The Russian government has always attempted to maintain some level of control over the Internet and the dissemination of electronic information in the country. Internet use within Russia has skyrocketed in recent years: In 2007, only 25 percent of the population used the Internet, but that percentage has grown to 53.3 percent (76 million people) in 2014.
The Concerns Behind Greater Internet Control
The Russian government started its first large crackdown on the Internet in 2012, following a string of mass anti-government protests throughout Russia in 2011-2012. Moscow passed a law that gave the state the ability to blacklist any website or domain it deemed harmful to minors. This law has since been manipulated to target opposition and foreign websites. This shift from the Kremlin came alongside other legislation targeting foreign nongovernmental organizations, labeling those that receive any foreign financial support as "foreign agents." The Kremlin was concerned about foreign support for the increasingly active opposition groups that had been protesting across Russia.
After the uprising in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of the government, the Kremlin's focus on opposition groups, and on any foreign support for them, has increased dramatically. Russia has repeatedly accused the West, particularly the United States, of orchestrating the events in Ukraine. Now Russia is also blaming social media and the Internet. Aleksandr Sharov, head of the Russian state media regulator Roskomnazdor, said April 23 that according to sociological research, the views of Internet users who are members of social network groups are becoming more radical. Zharov said that such radicalization "leads to real crimes" and that the Ukrainian radical group Right Sector was created and radicalized on social networks. Russia was able to get Facebook to delete a community dedicated to Right Sector, Zharov said, adding that Russian social network VKontakte also deleted a 35,000-strong group on fascism recently.
In the time since the government changed hands in Ukraine, Russia has begun targeting domestic opposition websites, banning more than 100 portals, including the opposition portals Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, EJ.ru and many websites supporting opposition heavyweight Alexei Navalny. Groups that had a hand in the mass protests of 2011-2012 ran these websites.
Responses to Russia's Internet Regulations
The recent crackdowns sparked a backlash from some groups in Russia. The founder and CEO of VKontakte, Pavel Durov, quit his company April 21 and reportedly has fled the country. VKontakte is the largest Russian-language social media site and is comparable to Facebook in the region. The site has nearly 250 million users throughout most of the former Soviet states. Durov said the Russian Federal Security Service ordered his company to ban a number of users and groups — specifically, in December, he was ordered to ban 39 groups allegedly linked to Ukraine's Euromaidan movement, which sparked the fall of the Ukrainian government in February. In addition, he was ordered to close down opposition heavyweight Navalny's networks. Refusing the state's orders, he was forced out of his position.
At the Media Forum in St. Petersburg on April 24, Putin went further, saying that "the Internet first appeared as a special CIA project" and that while it eventually opened to the public, it initially was a special military program, and "special services are still at the center of things."
At the forum, Putin also focused on Russia's largest search engine, Yandex, saying it will have to obtain a media license and will be subject to additional regulations in the future. Putin said this was because some of Yandex's regulation occurs abroad for reasons beyond taxation purposes. Putin said that when Yandex started, the company was pressured to have "a certain number of Americans and Europeans" among the management. Putin is now highlighting the Kremlin's concern regarding the alleged Western infiltration of Russia's largest search engine.
The New Restrictions
Putin's comments preceded the Russian Duma's drafts of new laws and amendments to current Internet regulations. These new rules will greatly restrict social media, bloggers, foreign websites and more.
The first changes are to the law "On Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information." According to the new amendments, by the end of the year companies using electronic communications will be required to store information on "sent messages" in Russian territory. This means that email, instant messaging services, Internet-based telephones and social networks must all use Russian-based servers to store data. Technically, this could enable the government to filter content, manage or disrupt access to websites and control how those users or networks interact with networks abroad. The amendments classify such actions as combating terrorism.
Google, Microsoft and Facebook already have asked for clarifications on the law, while Russian media has said that everything from Skype to Twitter is at risk. Noncompliance with the new law will result in banishment from Russia. One of Russia's largest Internet groups, Rambler, has said it will comply with the new laws.
The amendments would also move the coordination center for the domains of .ru and .rf under state control and would give these domains priority status on the Internet in Russia.
The second change is a new law called "Internet Users Called Bloggers," which requires bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with Roskomnadzor. In order to register, bloggers will have to reveal their real names and contact information to the state. Once registered, bloggers will then be constrained by Russia's strict media laws, which will restrict content, make bloggers liable for content and make the bloggers responsible for comments posted by third parties on their website or social media pages. In addition, blogging services will be required to store user and activity information for six months, giving authorities the ability to identify users and trends. The law has a vague definition of what constitutes a "blogger," broadly including anyone who posts on microblogs or social networks such as Twitter and opposition leader Navalny's blogs on LiveJournal.
The Duma is considering even more steps. Sen. Maksim Kavdzharadze has proposed that Russia set up a separate Internet from the United States and Europe, citing concerns about Western surveillance. Kavdzharadze proposed calling the all-Russian Internet "Cheburashka," a popular Soviet cartoon character.
All of these steps are meant not only to hinder the opposition within Russia but also to limit opposition groups' ability to connect abroad. It is also meant to give the Kremlin the ability to shape the Russian public's perception of the government and its actions abroad while limiting the West's ability to spread its views and propaganda in Russia.
Russia is also considering how much the country depends on foreign Internet services. Should the West increase sanctions on Russia, Internet services could be targeted, so Russia is looking to isolate its dependence on services based abroad.
This is part of a larger shift Russia has made in recent months as it tries to protect its banking sector, credit services and imports amid threats of more sanctions from the West. However, the new Internet restrictions could spark a backlash — whether protests or a flurry of Internet propaganda — from the population as access to certain websites and social media networking becomes increasingly limited.