The Globe: Russian Internet Freedom In Peril

Internet freedom is once again under siege in Russia. President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law that would give the government greater control over the internet in the country. Earlier this year, the government introduced new laws that would crack down on fake news and is enforcing stricter regulations on VPN services. Flash forward to today, Russia may attempt to disconnect from global internet in favor of one of their own invention, a move the government considers a necessity to preserve its national security in cyberspace. But this policy is just another case of the government seeking to control the information its citizens can access.

President Putin signed into law the “Stable Runet Law” which will allow for the country’s internet to remain operational in the event it gets “disconnected from the global infrastructure of the World Wide Web.” Despite claims that the law will protect the country’s national security, young Russians came out heavily in opposition to the new provision, citing concerns that government agencies will weaponize the Internet as another tool for disinformation, just like it has done with traditional media services (TV, radio, etc.).

The “concerns” about cyber-security is nothing new. In the early 2000s, the Color Revolution swept across several former-USSR countries, including Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. The Orange Revolution in particular was a hallmark case for the power of “Internet-based information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the political process.” ICTs, such as video sharing services, social media, etc.) allow for demonstrators to share their movement in real time so that people from across the world can join in on those movements.  Even though the Revolutions that gripped former Soviet Republics failed, their impact on the future of democratic protests is undeniable. Events such as the Arab Spring in 2011 and the 2014 Euromaidan movement in Ukraine relied greatly on the Internet to grab the world’s attention and ousting corrupt regimes.

Russia is not alone in being suspicious of a western-built institutions such as the internet. China has been developing technology to counter anti-propaganda for decades. With the proliferation of the Internet, the government in Beijing developed the Great Firewall of China which “employs filters to selectively block certain internet addresses, certain words, certain IP addresses” etc. As the BBC article by Adee states, China is more adept at controlling internet access due to its long-standing suspicion of western technology which resulted there being fewer cables that run through the country. Had former President Boris Yeltsin possessed the same fears that the Chinese government had about the Internet, then it would be easier for the Russian government to manage the flow of information in the cyberspace.  

The Federation’s ambition to completely segregate itself from the World Wide Web will be a difficult task to accomplish and may be hazardous to its financial well-being. Every country uses the Internet to carry out transactions to fuel their economies. Separating itself from such a system would bring with it severe consequences for the Russian Federation.

For those unfamiliar with digital politics, the Internet is partially administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which is responsible for accrediting (but not registering) domain names unless it is for an “intergovernmental agency with international treaties; maintains security, stability and interoperability of the internet; and allocates IP addresses.” ICANN was established in 1998 by the Clinton Administration as part of the Commerce Department with the eventual goal of becoming an independent, non-profit organization that sought to develop a “multi-stakeholder” system that would allow for input from public and private entities in the development of the Internet. After a much heated discussion, ICANN finally became independent of government control in 2016 after its contract with the U.S. government expired.

In order to actually separate itself from the global internet, Russia would have to localize content inside the country and that the exchange of information must be completely independent without any outside input. Russia has already created an alternate domain naming system in case it carries on with its plans. However, if Russia were to turn off their internet cables, then neighboring countries that depend on these cables will be at a disadvantage unless there are other ports of entry from other countries.

The new Internet regulations President Putin signed into law are unsurprising given his penchant for cracking down on information. During the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), Putin restricted media access in the war-ravaged region where the government waged a brutal campaign that left the capital city of Grozny in ruins. Then in 2012, the government enacted the infamous anti-propaganda law that essentially forbids any and all content that promotes the LGBTQIA+ movement. As of March, the country is now enforcing bans on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) unless they install tools to block certain websites that may clash with the state.   Essentially Putin wants to prevent his political rivals from ever contending with him while he remains in power.

Compared to Article 11 and 13 of the European Union, the Stable Runet Law does pose a serious challenge to freedom of speech in Russia. Cutting itself off from the World Wide Web would allow the Kremlin to control the flow of information. On the other hand, the country’s goal of an independent (if not more secure) network is understandable. A network that is built solely for Russia could deter any foreign cyber-attacks, whether its from a rival government or terrorist organization. There is no easy answer for this issue. Russia will always do what it believes is to be in their national self-interest. No amount of sanctions or protests will change the direction President Putin is taking his country on.