China Censors the Internet. So Why Doesn’t Russia?

MOSCOW – Margarita Simonian, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-controlled RT television network, recently called on the government to block access to Western social media.

He wrote: “Foreign platforms in Russia should be shut down.”

Her choice of social network to send that message: Twitter.

Although the Kremlin fears an open Internet the size of American companies, it cannot abandon it.

A wave of resentment, nationwide protests by Russia’s withdrawal of opposition leader Alexey A. Navalny has been enabled by the country’s free and open internet. State television controls the airwaves, but the dramatic arrest of Mr. Navalny online when arriving in Moscow, President Vladimir V. Calls from his supporters to investigate and protest Putin’s alleged secret palace were all broadcast to an audience of millions.

Over the years, the Russian government has put online the technical and legal infrastructure to curb freedom of speech, leading to frequent speculation that the country may move toward Internet censorship thanks to China’s great firewall.

But even when Mr Putin faced the biggest opposition in years last month, his government appeared reluctant – and to some extent, unable – to take other drastic measures to block websites or limit the spread of digital discontent. for.

The hesitation has narrowed the challenge to Mr. Putin as he blunts the political implications of cheap high-speed Internet access reaching remote corners of the vast country to curb the falling in love of Instagram, YouTube, Twitter. tries to. And Tickcock.

“Afraid, why the Kremlin did not wage a hard fight,” said Dmitry Galushko, a Moscow telecommunications consultant. “They’ve got all these weapons, but they don’t know how to use them.”

More broadly, the question of how to deal with the Internet poses a dilemma for Mr. Putin’s Russia: whether to take state repression to new heights and risk a public struggle or some semblance of an open society Trying to manage public dissatisfaction should continue. .

In China, government control went hand in hand in the early development of the Internet. But in Russia, home to the Soviet heritage of a vast group of engineering talent, digital entrepreneurship blossomed freely for two decades, until Mr. Putin tried to ban online speech after the 2011 and 2012 retaliatory protests .

At that point, the open Internet was so entangled in business and society – and its architecture was so decentralized – that it was too late to fundamentally change. But along with efforts to censor the Web, as internet providers install tools for government surveillance and control, the bill gained momentum after the bill was passed by parliament. At the same time, Internet access continues to expand thanks to government support.

Russian officials now say they have the technology to allow for “sovereign RuNet” – a network that will continue to give Russians access to Russian websites even if the country is cut off from the World Wide Web. The official line is that it provides security in terms of costly infrastructure security, when western Western forces try to cut off Russia’s communications link. But activists say this is really to give the Kremlin the option to cut off some or all of Russia from the world.

Mr. Putin the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council and a former Prime Minister, Dimitri A. Medvedev, “In principle, it would be possible to restore or enable the autonomous functioning of the Russian section of the web.” Told reporters Recently. “Technically, everything is ready for this.”

In the midst of domestic unrest this year, Russia’s saber-tingling directed at Silicon Valley has reached a new intensity. Mr. Navalny has used Google’s YouTube, Facebook’s Instagram and Twitter to access his ready-made depictions of official corruption with tens of millions of Russian people, below the $ 850 toilet brush that he claimed to have given Mr. The property used was identified by Putin.

At the same time, Russia has shown the powerlessness to prevent those companies from blocking pro-Kremlin accounts or forcing them to take pro-Navy content. (Mr. Navalani’s voice is also resonating with him repeatedly on social media: on Saturday, A court upheld his prison sentence Over two years

Russia’s telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, has publicly taken to destabilizing American Internet companies, sometimes several times a day. On Wednesday, the regulator Said that The voice-chat social network Clubhouse had violated the rights of citizens to “use the information and distribute it freely” by suspending the account of a prominent state television host, Vladimir Soloyov. On January 29, Claimed it That Google was stopping the YouTube video containing the Russian national anthem was called “flagrant and unacceptable rudeness directed at all citizens of our country”.

The clubhouse apparently blocked Mr. Solovov’s account due to user complaints, while Google said that some of the Russian anthemic videos were blocked in error due to content rights issues. The club house did not respond to a request for comment.

Furthermore, as nationwide protests were called after Mr. Navalny’s arrest last month, Roskomnadzor Said social networks were encouraging minors To participate in illegal activity.

Russian social network VKontakte and the Chinese-owned app TikTok partially complied with Roskomnadzor’s order to block access to protest-related content. But Facebook said, “This content does not violate our community standards.”

For all its criticisms of American social media companies, the Kremlin has used them extensively to spread its message around the world. It was Facebook that served as a primary tool in Russia’s effort for the 2016 United States presidential election. On YouTube, the state-controlled network RT has a combined 14 million subscribers for its English, Spanish and Arabic-language channels.

RT’s editor, Ms. Simonian, says she will continue to use American social media platforms until they are banned.

“Quit using these platforms while everyone else is using them,” The New York Times said in a statement. “Banning them is counterproductive for everyone.”

A law Signed by Mr. Putin In December, grants his government new powers to block or restrict access to social networks, but it is yet to be used. When regulators attempted to block access to the messaging app Telegram starting in 2018 for a two-year effort Ended in failure Telegram found ways around restrictions.

Instead, officials are trying to lure Russians on social networks like VKontakte who are closely involved with the government. State-owned natural gas giant Gazprom Media has promised to replace its long-moribund video platform RuTube as a competitor to YouTube. In December it said it had purchased an app on Tiktok, called “Yes Molodets” – Russian, for sharing small smartphone videos, “These I’m Gratodates”.

Andrei Solatov, a journalist who has written a book on the Kremlin’s efforts to control the Internet, says a strategy to persuade people to use Russian platforms is a way to keep them from going viral in moments of crisis is. As of April 1, all smartphones sold in Russia will be required to come pre-loaded with 16 Russian-made apps, including three social networks and an answer from Apple’s Siri voice assistant called Marussia.

“, Soltov said, the goal is for the typical Russian user to stay in the Russian application bubble.” “Potentially, it can be effective.”

Even more effective, some activists say, is the acceleration of Mr. Putin’s selective repression machine. A new law provides online libel with a prison sentence of up to five years, and the editor of a popular news website gave a 15-day jail sentence for withdrawing a joke, including a reference to a January Naval protest Was.

Widely circulated Video This month, a SWAT team in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok can be seen questioning local video blogger Gennadi Shulga covering the protests. An officer with a helmet, goggles and combat fat presses Mr. Shulga onto a tile floor next to two pet food bowls.

“The Kremlin is lagging far behind in the information race,” said Internet freedom activist Sarkis Durbinan. “Self-censorship and fear – that’s what we’re growing.”

Oleg Matsenev contributed reporting.

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