Russia is quietly ramping up its internet censorship machine

Finally, says Shakirov, there is “restriction of access to information” – the blocking of websites. The legal ability to block websites was implemented through the passing of Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law in 2016, and since

Finally, says Shakirov, there is “restriction of access to information” – the blocking of websites. The legal ability to block websites was implemented through the passing of Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law in 2016, and since then Russia has expanded its technical capabilities to block sites. “Now the possibilities for restricting access are growing by leaps and bounds,” says Shakirov.

The Sovereign Internet Law helps build on the idea of ​​RuNet, a Russian internet that can be disconnected from the rest of the world. Since the start of the war against Ukraine in late February, more than 2,384 sites have been blocked in Russia, according to an analysis by Top10 VPN. These range from independent Russian news websites and Ukrainian domains to Big Tech and foreign news sites.

“The Russian government is continually trying to have more control over what content people can access,” says Grant Baker, associate technology and democracy researcher at the nonprofit Freedom House. (Roskomnadzor, the country’s media and communications regulator, did not respond to a request for comment from WIRED.) All internet control measures and surveillance systems, Baker says, are associated with societal repressions. wider, including the detention of more than 16,000 peaceful protesters. and the increased use of facial recognition.

But building a surveillance empire isn’t easy. China is widely regarded as the most restrictive online nation in the world, with its Great Firewall blocking websites that fall outside its political vision. This “sovereign” Chinese model of the Internet took years to flourish, even the creator of the Chinese firewall could have circumvented it by using a VPN.

As Russia sought to emulate this Chinese model to some extent, it failed. When officials tried to block messaging app Telegram in 2018, they failed miserably and gave up two years later. Building the Russian vision of the RuNet has faced multiple delays. However, many of Russia’s most recent policy announcements are not designed for the short term – controlling the internet is a long-term project. Some of these measures may never exist at all.

“It is still difficult to assess in detail the impact of all these measures, given the often blurred distinction between a clear political signal and an ambition from the Kremlin, and its effective translation into concrete projects and changes,” says Julien Nocetti. , senior partner. researcher at the French Institute of International Relations, who studies the Russian Internet.

For example, several Russian-language app stores have appeared in recent months, but many of them have few apps available for download. According to the independent newspaper Moscow timeone of the app store’s main competitors, RuStore, offers less than 1,000 apps for download.

Other sovereign Internet efforts have also failed. RuTube, the Russian equivalent of YouTube, has not gained popularity despite authorities pushing its use. Meanwhile, the website of Rossgram, a potential alternative to Instagram that has yet to launch, displays a message saying it’s “under development” and warning people not to download Instagram versions. app they might find online because it “comes from scammers”.

While many of Russia’s sovereign internet measures have struggled to get off the ground, its ability to block websites has improved since it first tried to throttle Twitter in March 2021. And others nations are watching. “Countries learn from each other various Internet regulatory practices,” says Shakirov. “Russia has decided to make a Chinese version of its Internet, and now other countries in the post-Soviet space, Africa or Latin America can follow this example.”

Lokot says that as more countries seek to regulate the internet and do so with their national security in mind, the internet itself is put at risk. “When the conversation shifts from ‘the internet as a public good’ to ‘the internet, and access to the internet, as a matter of national security’, the questions change,” says Lokot. “We will potentially see some really problematic choices made by states – and not just by authoritarian states, but also by democratic states.”