MOSCOW -- When Russia announced it was slowing down Twitter access this week, citing the social network’s alleged failure to delete objectionable material, it was seen as a sign that the Kremlin was acting on repeated threats to bring the Internet under control.
"This will make all other social networks and major foreign web companies understand that Russia won't continue to silently watch as our laws are flouted," a lawmaker who co-authored laws legalizing the move told reporters.
But the initiative appeared to badly backfire when users across the country began reporting that a host of government websites, including the homepages of the Kremlin and Interior Ministry, were temporarily down.
Just months ago, authorities halted a failed two-year push to block the Telegram messaging app that had led to the disabling of 16 million IP addresses on Amazon's and Google’s cloud platforms and prompted ridicule from tech experts worldwide.
So the latest debacle led to fresh claims that Russia was shooting itself in the foot while trying to exert control over a foreign-based tech company, and served as a reminder of the Kremlin’s clumsy, long-standing campaign to rein in the Web.
"They want to channel the minds of Russian citizens in the direction they deem correct," says Dmitry Galushko, an independent Internet consultant based in Moscow. "But often it doesn’t quite go to plan."
China's Great Firewall
With its Great Firewall, China moved quickly and early to institute a system of inspecting data and blocking IP addresses and domain names. Russia, where 78 percent of the population is online, was slow to act and in many ways missed the boat.
Today, the Internet is so unwieldy and complex that ratcheting up regulation is far more difficult, setting up a protracted tug of war between the Russian government and Internet companies since Vladimir Putin began his third term as president in 2012 and set about narrowing the space for dissent both online and offline.
Following mass anti-government protests that year, Putin signed a law that allows authorities to block websites and force them offline without a court trial. Hundreds were added to an official blacklist, but the method was seen as too crude and piecemeal, and the availability of cheap VPNs and other proxy services enabled Russians to bypass state censorship.
Meanwhile, the Internet continued to rapidly gain clout, offering a vehicle to challenge the Kremlin narrative broadcast daily to the 70 percent of Russians who still get news predominantly from government-controlled TV.
The shift was highlighted by the growing influence of opposition figures like Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who survived what he calls a state-sponsored poisoning and now languishes in prison on what his allies denounce as fabricated charges.
Navalny and his team released slick investigations into corruption that sometimes gathered tens of millions of views on YouTube, enraging a swath of society coming of age as the U.S. video-hosting platform experienced its meteoric global rise.
"A zone of free information has arisen, and that makes the authorities nervous," says Denis Volkov, deputy director of the Levada Center, an independent polling organization that has documented state TV’s waning popularity relative to online platforms. "People who use the Internet, read Telegram channels, and watch YouTube are far more critical of the government."
In 2020, Putin’s New Year address was watched by 26.5 million people, according to viewing figures from the six main state TV channels. By comparison, two videos published in December 2020 by Navalny -- who revealed details of alleged Kremlin involvement in his poisoning last August -- gathered 22 million views each on YouTube alone. (Another Navalny investigation, into a Black Sea palace allegedly owned by Putin, has close to 115 million views.)
The response has been a concerted, but often bungling, crackdown on free speech online. In 2019, Russia passed a "sovereign Internet" law that gives officials wide-ranging powers to restrict online traffic, up to the point of isolating the country from cross-border Internet connections during national emergencies. Moscow has repeatedly warned that it is ready to use the new measure if unrest were to reach a serious scale.
The year 2020 saw 289 criminal cases launched against Russians for social-media posts, most of them judged by the authorities to be peddling disinformation, according to a report on Internet freedoms by the Agora human rights group. Libel online is now punishable by up to two years in prison.
In January and early February, a series of massive anti-government rallies actively promoted on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok, the Chinese video app that played an outsize role in hosting pro-Navalny content, ushered in an intensified push to fine-tune the online censorship apparatus.
“We all know what the Internet is, and how it's used to promote absolutely unacceptable content," Putin, who has called the Internet a CIA project and is known to avoid it, said in a meeting with security officials in early March.
Western Platforms Targeted
The move against Twitter came shortly after. The government accused the company of failing for years to comply with demands that it remove almost 3,000 posts about illegal drugs, child pornography, and suicide, and threatened it with fines. Twitter acknowledged the effort to slow its operation in Russia and denounced “attempts to block and throttle online public conversation.” It also cited its zero-tolerance policy regarding child sexual exploitation and other unlawful behavior promoted on the website.
Other Western platforms are also being targeted. Communications watchdog Roskomnadzor has issued demands that Navalny videos be removed from YouTube while pressuring Google, YouTube's parent company, to change its algorithms to bump up content by pro-Kremlin journalists.
The carrot to the stick of threats and fines is a homegrown infrastructure of services meant to replace Facebook, YouTube, Google, and other foreign websites. Companies like Yandex and Mail.ru started out, respectively, as a search engine and e-mail service and expanded to become major players in Russia’s segment of the web.
And with many government services in Russia already offered exclusively online, citizens have few choices but to interact with them, opening opportunities for fledgling Russian developers come April when a new law will mandate that a suite of apps vetted by the government be preloaded on smartphones and other electronic devices sold in the country.
"This is the Chinese model: making people live in a bubble of homegrown apps," says Andrei Soldatov, co-author of Red Web and an expert on the Russian Internet. "And that infrastructure is not so difficult to create, especially when you have a country as centralized as Russia."
But while Russia is incubating developers capable of spearheading that process, there’s pushback from companies that route traffic through Amazon and Google, and new apps like Clubhouse keep springing up to capture the imagination of Russian users. "You’re constantly playing catch-up and finding ways to plug the holes," says Soldatov.
With further protests planned ahead of parliamentary elections in September, there are now fears that Russia will resort to the nuclear option: blocking major social-media networks wholesale in the style of countries like Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. In 2018, Russia cut access to the business network LinkedIn in what was widely seen as a trial run, and after the latest move against Twitter, few analysts discount the chance that bigger platforms are next.
"This is the start of a new era, of Russia experimenting with methods it has honed over time," says Sarkis Darbinian of Roskomsvoboda, a nongovernmental organization that monitors online censorship in Russia. "It's sloppy and heavy-handed, but the offensive is reaching a new level. And it's clear that Facebook and Google could well be next."