In late July, Russian President Vladimir Putin tightened restrictions on internet usage in Russia by signing amendments to an existing law the Kremlin claims are necessary to stop the spread of illegal content online. The new changes give the government authority to block websites that offer internet proxy services (virtual private networks, or VPNs), which Russians frequently use to access blocked content by routing connections through servers abroad. Russia’s internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has been giving the nation’s internet service providers (ISPs) lists of banned websites to block. Even when ISPs heed the request, however, customers can circumvent blacklists by using VPN services or specialized software like the Tor browser to route their internet traffic out of Russia, effectively bypassing the regional firewall. The new amendments will also let Russia’s secret services immediately identify users on instant messengers; apps will be required to verify users through their phone numbers and send out compulsory text messages from government agencies on request.
On 20 July, Leonid Levin, head of the State Duma’s committee for information policy, said the new law is intended to block access to “unlawful content”—not impose restrictions on law-abiding citizens. In 2012, Russia passed a law allowing state agencies to block certain internet pages—specifically child pornography sites and those promoting suicide and narcotics. Later, courts also blocked sites advocating religious or ethnic hatred. However, Russian authorities have used this vague and inconsistently enforced list to censor a wide range of online topics under the pretext of anti-extremism measures, Freedom House found in its 2016 Freedom of the Net report. In June, Roskomnadzor—the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media—banned Google’s Russian portal, Google.ru, for linking to a banned gambling website.
The most pressing motive for the latest round of restrictions, however, is not to protect citizens but to ensure the regime’s stability. In closed-door remarks before the Duma in June, FSB Chief Aleksandr Bortnikov reportedly warned Kremlin officials of a Western “information war” by CNN, the Washington Post and other media that were meddling in internal Russian politics by generating “fake news.” (A recent investigation by Russia’s pro-Kremlin United Russia party found that the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and CNN had been used to influence Russia’s 2016 Duma elections). Bortnikov also spoke at length about recent cyber-security incidents and challenges, the threat posed by hacking and Russia’s attempt to replace imported foreign computer software with domestic software. A link between Russian domestic politics and the new amendments is suggested by the fact that they take effect 1 November, on the eve of a presidential election campaign in which Putin is widely expected to seek a new six-year term but which could generate public protests.
The amendments are the latest steps in recent months to tighten the Kremlin’s grip over the internet. In May, Putin issued an executive order creating a government strategy through 2030 that will increase government controls. In a report published in July, Human Rights Watch said Russian authorities have clamped down on internet freedoms and introduced “invasive surveillance” online under the pretext of fighting extremism The report also criticized Russian authorities for unjustly imprisoning dozens of people based on their activity online, and for introducing new laws that “restrict access to information, carry out unchecked surveillance and censor information the government designates as ‘extremist.’”
Officially, the latest amendments apply to foreign companies, internet expert Andrei Soldatov has pointed out. But in reality, those firms are not the prime target of the new legislation. Even the Kremlin understands, he argues, how unlikely it is that global players whose entire business model is built on providing services that shield users from government surveillance will cooperate. Instead, it is Russian internet service providers (ISPs) that now will face Kremlin pressure. Having grasped how difficult and costly it is to win this high-tech rat race, Russian authorities have passed on the problem to ISPs, which are now required to block those VPNs and messengers that do not play by the new rules. And if they are slow to catch up with, say, the engineers of Tor or Psiphon—the two most popular circumvention tools in countries with repressive regimes—the Kremlin will punish them mercilessly.