The Red Web: Russia and the Internet

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 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.

High School Debates on Surveillance Informed by CRS

The Congressional Research Service has produced a bibliography on domestic surveillance to support this year’s national high school debate program which is devoted to that subject.

“Resolved: The United States Federal Government Should Substantially Curtail Its Domestic Surveillance” is the topic that was selected for the 2015-2016 high school debate by representatives of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The Librarian of Congress is directed by law (44 USC 1333) to “prepare compilations of pertinent excerpts, bibliographical references, and other appropriate materials” relating to the annual high school and college debates. So CRS (a component of the Library of Congress) has fulfilled that requirement, providing citations to contrasting perspectives on surveillance in news stories, books, law review articles, websites, and non-governmental organizations.

“The conflict between national security objectives and privacy became a popular topic for debate when it was disclosed in June 2013, by former defense contractor Edward Snowden, that the National Security Agency was engaging in extensive surveillance inside the United States in order to fight crime and to reduce the threat of terrorism,” according to the CRS introduction to the document.

“The magnitude of the disclosure shocked many people, including Members of Congress, who were unaware of the extent of the surveillance. Many civil rights advocates viewed the surveillance as an assault on liberty, while law enforcement and national security officials saw the programs as essential weapons in the war on terror, the fight against nuclear weapons proliferation, and the general protection of U.S. national security.”

“In selecting items for inclusion in this bibliography, CRS has sampled a wide spectrum of opinions reflected in the current literature on this issue,” CRS director Mary B. Mazanec wrote in a Foreword.

“No preference for any policy is indicated by the selection or positioning of articles, books, or websites cited, nor is CRS disapproval of any policy, position or article to be inferred from its omission,” she wrote.

See Compilation of References on Domestic Surveillance for National High School Debate, 2015-2016, Congressional Research Service, August 2015.

The CRS document is unobjectionable, but it has some peculiarities.

A prominent typographical error on the title pages repeatedly misstates the debate topic to read “The United States federal government should substantially curtain [sic] its domestic surveillance.”

The bibliography includes the titles of six surveillance-related reports that were produced by the Congressional Research Service itself. CRS does not acknowledge that each of these reports has been posted online and may be easily obtained. Instead, the bibliography disingenuously advises that they “are available by way of a request to your Member of Congress.” The notion that hundreds or thousands of high school students are actually going to contact their congressional offices for copies of CRS reports that can be instantly located by an online search, or that the offices would promptly and reliably provide them, is hard to credit.

The subject of domestic surveillance was chosen for the annual national high school debate program over other proposed topics including income inequality, criminal justice reform, and government authority over Indian country.

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New and updated CRS reports that were issued over the past week include the following.

Poverty in the United States in 2014: In Brief, September 30, 2015

EPA’s New Ozone Standards: A Few Thoughts, CRS Insight, September 29, 2015

Emerging Markets: Is Slower Growth Temporary?, CRS Insight, September 29, 2015

Zivotofsky v. Kerry: The Jerusalem Passport Case and Its Potential Implications for Congress’s Foreign Affairs Powers, updated September 28, 2015

Abortion, Hospital Admitting Privileges, and Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, September 25, 2015

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Supreme Court: A Legal Analysis of Young v. United Parcel Service, September 25, 2015

The Lord’s Resistance Army: The U.S. Response, updated September 28, 2015

Mexico’s Oil and Gas Sector: Background, Reform Efforts, and Implications for the United States, updated September 28, 2015

Direct Overt U.S. Aid Appropriations for and Military Reimbursements to Pakistan, FY2002-FY2016, updated September 30, 2015

Puerto Rico’s Current Fiscal Challenges, updated September 25, 2015

Can Creditors Enforce Terrorism Judgments Against Cuba?, CRS Legal Sidebar, September 29, 2015

Iran’s Foreign Policy, updated September 25, 2015

Navy Irregular Warfare and Counterterrorism Operations: Background and Issues for Congress, updated September 25, 2015

ODNI Declassifies Data on Frequency of Surveillance

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the “2013 Statistical Transparency Report” detailing the frequency of use of various intelligence surveillance authorities and the estimated number of targets affected by the surveillance.

While the reported numbers give some rough sense of the scale of intelligence surveillance — civil liberties groups said the estimated numbers are bound to be misleadingly low — the report provides no basis for evaluating the utility or legitimacy of the surveillance activities.

How many of the collection activities were authorized on the basis of erroneous information? How many actually produced useful intelligence? The report doesn’t say, and the raw numbers are not a substitute. If they were ten times higher, or ten times lower, we would be none the wiser.

(A supplemental response from ODNI to Senator Wyden was released today.)

See U.S. Phone Searches Expanded in 2013 by Siobhan Gorman, Wall Street Journal, June 27, and related coverage elsewhere (WashPost, Wired,, Huffington Post).

From a secrecy policy point of view, perhaps the most intriguing feature of the new release is the unconventional timing of its declassification. The report is dated June 26, 2014 and was classified at the TOP SECRET/NOFORN level. But it says it was declassified by DNI Clapper three days earlier on June 23, 2014!

This temporally fluid approach to declassification could have many useful applications.