For the Kremlin, the Internet is a Western conspiracy
In 2017, Russia vowed to make its internet sustainable and self-sufficient. In reality, the Kremlin made its first systematic attempt to control its cyberspace.
As Russia sends in tanks and soldiers to take over Ukraine, it also sends in censors and regulators to choke off the internet. In this special series from the Center for European Policy Analysis The new Iron CurtainSenior Fellows Andrei soldatov and Irina Borogan argue that both invasions are linked and represent the culmination of a trend spanning more than a decade to curb the free and open flow of information in Russia.
For years, former KGB generals viewed the growth of the Internet with suspicion, believing it posed a threat to Russia’s national security. They swore to turn it off.
Their leader was Vladislav Sherstyuk, a career KGB officer. In 1998 he became director of FAPSI, the branch of the intelligence agency responsible for spying on foreign communications and protecting the government’s most sensitive networks. The next year, President Putin promoted Sherstyuk to the powerful Security Council, where he oversaw the information security department. In 2000 his team composed the ‘Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation‘, a plan for the future of the Russian Internet.
Its doctrine reflects the mindset of the KGB: the free flow of information coming from the West, poses a threat on the national security of Russia. threats enough from a “devaluation of spiritual values” to a “reduction of the spiritual, moral and creative potential of the Russian people” to “manipulation of information (disinformation, obfuscation or misrepresentation)”. Putin signed the document, and the Security Council became the ideological center of operations to contain Russian internet freedom and the force behind the emerging Sovereign Internet.
In November 2017, the Security Council instructed the Ministry of Communications “to submit proposals for the creation and implementation of a state information system to ensure the integrity, stability and security of the Russian segment of the Internet, as well as replacement root servers for national top-level domain names. “The Security Council warned: “A serious threat to the security of the Russian Federation is the increased capabilities of Western countries to conduct offensive operations in information space and their readiness to use them.”
Officially, the Security Council aimed to make the Russian Internet sustainable and self-sufficient. In fact, the Kremlin wanted to build an effective control system. The Kremlin identified six challenges that need to be addressed:
- The biggest threat to the Kremlin’s narrative does not come from abroad, but from Russia.
During the Cold War, the Kremlin saw the most dangerous content from Western media. This content could be found on the Internet, but Russians preferred and trusted native content.
The documentaries by opposition leader Alexei Navalny on corruption in the Kremlin reached record audiences on YouTube. 2017 Navalnys YouTube video about the alleged corruption of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been viewed more than 22 million times. Since then, Navalny’s organization has been producing anti-corruption videos on YouTube on an industrial scale. These videos are more popular than content created by Radio Free Europe, Voice of America or the BBC.
The Kremlin started to press both local and western tech companies to remove oppositional content that is critical to the authorities.
- Ordinary Russians observing and posting something out of the ordinary online are more dangerous than activists.
When ordinary people witness a natural disaster, engineering disaster, or police brutality — and share the evidence through video or photos — the posts go viral. The information spreads too fast for the censorship system.
The Kremlin began setting up a Moscow control center that gave it the ability to monitor access to the entire Russian Internet.
- Russians prefer global apps over local apps.
Censors understand that activists use apps like Signal or software like Tor to obfuscate their communications, but ordinary Russians depend on mainstream consumer apps like WhatsApp, Viber (a communication app made by Japanese company Rakuten), Telegram and TikTok.
The Kremlin wanted to replace reliance on western apps with local ones that the security services could control and suppress.
- Video is the online content most likely to spark mass protests.
The explosive growth of YouTube and TikTok surprised Russian authorities. In 2017, Navalny’s documentary on Medvedev’s corruption encouraged Russian YouTubers to distribute videos showing police brutality used to crack down on protests. Russian schoolchildren filmed their teachers raging at enemies of the state and posted the videos.
The Kremlin focused its censorship efforts on video posts, filing numerous complaints about the Navalny videos on YouTube and arresting the editor of Navalny Live.
- The decentralized Internet makes it possible to publicize and promote events not only in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but throughout the vast country.
In August 2018, tensions rose in the Muslim-majority region of Ingushetia over a Kremlin-backed border exchange deal with neighboring Chechnya. On the day the agreement was signed, around a hundred people gathered to protest in the Ingush capital of Magas.
Ingushetia’s internet was cut off. Authorities suppressed live streaming. In the weeks that followed, the Ingush took to the streets to protest, and the FSB secret service forced internet shutdowns.
Despite efforts, information about protests kept leaking. Controlled from a single center in Moscow, the Kremlin’s new system is designed to shut down the internet for entire regions so it can trade without having to rely on regional enforcers.
- Russian telecom companies are unwilling to foot the bill for censorship and surveillance tools.
Beginning in the 1990s, Russian telecom companies needed to purchase and upgrade equipment for online surveillance. As of 2018, the Russians were required to keep all users’ full data for six months and their metadata for three years.
Telecom companies protested. Sometimes their opposition became public – company officials expressed their concerns at conferences and to journalists. In most cases, the resistance remained private. Companies tried to circumvent the legislation, for example by renting surveillance equipment from large operators. This resistance undermined the effectiveness of Russia’s nationwide surveillance and filtering.
The Kremlin censors realized they had to pay companies to install censorship and surveillance tools. They began equipping Internet Service Providers with special devices that gave the government the ability to block traffic and redirect it to the control center in Moscow.
The sovereign internet was born. It would be built over the next few years, even before the decision to invade Ukraine.
Andrei Soldierov is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Andrei is a Russian investigative journalist, co-founder and editor of Agentura.ru, a monitoring agency for the activities of the Russian secret services. Since 1999 he has been dealing with security services and terrorism issues.
Irina Borogan is Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Irina is a Russian investigative journalist, co-founder and deputy editor of Agentura.ru, a monitoring agency for the activities of the Russian secret services.