The Internet in Russia is a battleground between activists who would use it as a tool of political and cultural freedom and government officials who see it as a powerful instrument of political control, write investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan in their new book The Red Web. For now, the government appears to be winning the battle.
Soldatov and Borogan trace the underlying conflict back to official anxiety in the Soviet era about the hazards of freedom of information. In the 1950s, the first Soviet photocopy machine was physically destroyed at the direction of the government “because it threatened to spread information beyond the control of those who ruled.”
With the introduction of imported personal computers in the 1980s and a connection to the Internet in 1990, new possibilities for free expression and political organizing in Russia seemed to arise. But as described in The Red Web, each private initiative was met by a government response seeking to disable or limit it. Internet service providers were required to install “black boxes” (known by the acronym SORM) giving Russia’s security services access to Internet traffic. Independent websites, such as the authors’ own agentura.ru site on intelligence matters, were subject to blocking and attack. Journalists’ computers were seized.
But the struggle continued. Protesters used new social media tools to organize demonstrations. The government countered with new facial recognition technology and cell phone tracking to identify them. Large teams of “trolls” were hired to disrupt social networks. A nationwide system of online filtering and censorship was put in place by 2012, and has been refined since then.
To some extent, the government actions constituted an implied threat rather than a fully implemented one, according to Soldatov and Borogan.
“The Russian secret services have had a long tradition of using spying techniques not merely to spy on people but to intimidate them. The KGB had a method of ‘overt surveillance’ in which they followed a target without concealing themselves. It was used against dissidents.”
And in practice, much of the new surveillance infrastructure fell short of stifling independent activity, as the authors’ own work testifies.
“The Internet filtering in Russia turned out to be unsophisticated; thousands of sites were blocked by mistake, and users could easily find ways to make an end-run around it,” they write. Moreover, “very few people in Russia were actually sent to jail for posting criticism of the government online.”
Nevertheless, “Russian Internet freedom has been deeply curtailed.”
In a chapter devoted to the case of Edward Snowden, the authors express disappointment in Snowden’s unwillingness to comment on Russian surveillance or to engage with Russian journalists. “To us, the silence seemed odd and unpleasant.”
More important, they say that Snowden actually made matters in Russia worse.
“Snowden may not have known or realized it, but his disclosures emboldened those in Russia who wanted more control over the Internet,” they write.
Because the Snowden disclosures were framed not as a categorical challenge to surveillance, but exclusively as an exposure of U.S. and allied practices, they were exploited by the Russian government to legitimize its own preference for “digital sovereignty.”
Snowden provided “cover for something the Kremlin wanted all along– to force Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s services, Gmail and YouTube, to be subject to Russian legislation, which meant providing backdoor access to the Russian security services.”
“Snowden could have done good things globally, but for Russia he was a disaster,” said Stas Kozlovsky of Moscow State University, a leading Wikipedia contributor in Russia, as quoted in The Red Web.
(Recently, Snowden has spoken out more clearly against Russian surveillance practices. “I’ve been quite critical of [it] in the past and I’ll continue to be in the future, because this drive that we see in the Russian government to control more and more the internet, to control more and more what people are seeing, even parts of personal lives, deciding what is the appropriate or inappropriate way for people to express their love for one another … [is] fundamentally wrong,” he said in a recent presentation. See “Snowden criticises Russia for approach to internet and homosexuality,” The Guardian, September 5, 2015).
The Red Web provides a salutary reminder for Western readers that the so-called U.S. “surveillance state” has hardly begun to exercise the possibilities of political control implied in that contemptuous term. For all of its massive collection of private data, the National Security Agency — unlike its Russian counterparts — has not yet interfered in domestic elections, censored private websites, disrupted public gatherings, or gained unrestricted access to domestic communications.
Soldatov and Borogan conclude on an optimistic note. After all, they write, things are even worse in China. See The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Public Affairs, 2015.