The Iron Curtain for the Russian Internet
Experts believe that total isolation of the Russian Internet is impossible. But the inner circle businessmen will make a good profit trying
On May 1, President Putin signed the law on “sustainable, secure and fully functioning Internet.” It has been derided as “the law on isolating the Internet.” The law states that in case Russia is cut off from the global infrastructure, the Russian segment of the Internet must be able to function autonomously without interruption. Providers must install special technical devices (back doors) to protect against possible threats; the equipment will be controlled by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecoms agency. Implementing the law will require 30 billion rubles ($150 million). Previously the law was harshly criticized by experts, human rights organizations, Internet providers, the Council on Human Rights of the Russian Federation, a number of deputies in the State Duma, and even Roskomnadzor itself.
The law on “secure Internet” was the final chord in a number of recent legislative initiatives regarding media in Russia, known also as the “Klishas laws” (named for Senator Andrei Klishas, who introduced them), passed in spring 2019. They include the law on fake news and the law on showing disrespect for the authorities. Both affect the Internet. The first bans distribution of information that can harm citizens or the work of life-supporting agencies and so on. The accuracy of information must be determined by the Prosecutor General or his deputies, and on the demand of the Prosecutor, Roskomnadzor will block access to those sites. The fine for distributing “fake news” in the Internet can be as high as 1.5 million rubles ($23,000). The second law has a fine up to 300,00 rubles ($5,000) or arrest.
The new laws are an attempt to introduce direct censorship, which had been banned by the Law on Mass Media back in 1990. This is the warning given by PEN-Moscow, PEN- St. Petersburg, and more than a hundred writers, scholars and scientists, and intellectuals who support the organizations. Their anxiety is shared by such international organizations as PEN International, the European Federation of Journalists, and OSCE.
“The Klishas Laws,” says Galina Arapova, director of the Center for the Protection of the Rights of the Mass Media, “are an attempt to shut the last open window of freedom of speech in the country.” While the media is afraid to criticize the authorities, the social networks have become the real field of live discussion. “The new laws, like the ones on fake news and insulting authorities, are aimed against specific people who post information in the networks, aimed at frightening them.”
Will they be able to stop free discussion in the Russian Internet? Or completely isolate the Russian Internet? There are various opinions. Young users of the net do not believe in the success of the limitations, bringing up the failure to block the popular messenger service Telegram (Instagram and YouTube in one). Many feel that the total isolation of the Russian segment of the Internet is fundamentally impossible. The public was upset by the news of the costs of implementing the law—the money would be enough not only to improve computers in schools but also, for example, to provide heated toilets in rural schools. And to solve many acute social issues. Russian citizens in recent times have become very touchy about new expensive projects for abstract goals.
Galina Arapova believes that the law on independent Internet will probably allow the authorities to solve certain tactical internal issues; she reminds us of the recent events in Ingushetia, when moving the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya caused unrest in the republic, during which mobile communications and social networks were shut down.
The law on the secure Internet is the direct continuation of the practice of dividing up the budget, in the opinion of Leonid Volkov of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. He believes that the main incentive is not so much the desire to establish total censorship as the desire to let certain businessmen feed at the government trough, and as soon as possible, since the political future in not clear. “That is why a hysterical and unworkable law is passed, which they will not be able to implement technically, but the 30 billions rubles have to used by November 1, 2019. So it is passed for the sake of a quick mastery of 30 billion and for no other reason.”
Volkov’s opinion is a surprise for many. But if we recall the practice of anti-Russia sanctions and Russian “anti-sanctions,” which resulted in an impoverishment of most of the public and the appearance of dozens of dollar billionaires, we can follow the logic.
Professor of economics Natalya Zubarevich, an expert at the UN, has been saying for the last several years that Russia’s course toward isolationism promotes the enrichment of oligarchs close to the regime and demonstrating how the “anti-sanctions” helped the businessmen close to the regime to grow rich. It is clear that the anti-Russia sanctions accelerated two processes—the strengthening of legislation on NGOs and media and the consequent selective application of the law, pushing independent voices out of the legal field and at the same time enriching “patriotic” businessmen who use the rhetoric of “life in a besieged fortress” to great effect. The secure Internet is yet another element in that concept. But it is the ordinary Russian citizens who will pay for it, and the most recent polls show that they increasingly dislike the patriotic rhetoric. The law comes into effect on November 1, 2019. Let’s see what happens then.