Russia tries to emulate Beijing's model of information control
By Emily Parker
Russia has embarked on an ambitious social experiment. Just a few years ago, Russians had a mostly free internet. Now Moscow is looking toward Beijing, trying to imitate the Chinese model of internet control. Yet the Kremlin will likely find that once you give people internet freedom, it isn't so easy to completely take it away.
I lived in Moscow in 2010, after spending years researching internet activism in China. I quickly found that Russia and China had very different attitudes toward the Web. China had countless human censors and automatic keyword filters, as well as a firewall that blocked great quantities of "sensitive" content. In Russia, by contrast, you could find almost any information online. Authorities didn't make a strong effort to censor the internet because the internet wasn't a political threat.
This all changed in late 2011 and early 2012, when Moscow was the site of the largest antigovernment protests since the end of the Soviet Union. Social media played a significant role in organizing those protests, and Russian President Vladimir Putin took note. A flurry of new rules sprouted up, including a law that granted Russian authorities the power to block online content.
The Kremlin will see that China is a tough act to follow. Because, let's face it, Beijing has done a pretty good job of allowing internet access on its own terms. China has some 700 million people online as well as great restrictions on the flow of information. The Great Firewall of China has blocked overseas sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and media including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Human censors, often working at Chinese tech companies, monitor and edit online conversations.
Russian authorities seem to admire this approach. In 2016, former Chinese internet czar Lu Wei and Great Firewall architect Fang Binxing visited Moscow to meet with a group called the Safe Internet League. In early November 2016, a Russian court upheld a decision to block LinkedIn, sounding a warning to foreign internet firms that operate in the country. Russian law requires websites that store the personal data of Russian citizens to do so on Russian servers. Google, Twitter, and Facebook all risk being blocked in Russia if they refuse to store such personal data on Russian soil.
Both Russia and China have made clear that they wish to regulate the internet as they see fit. Chinese President Xi Jinping has stressed the importance of internet sovereignty, which basically means that individual countries should have the right to choose their own model of cyber governance. In this context "sovereign" can be roughly translated into "free from U.S. interference." Putin has taken this idea one step further by calling the internet a "CIA project." By this logic, Russia needs to proactively protect its own interests in the information sphere, whether by cracking down on online dissent or using the internet to spread its own version of events. It remains to be seen if and how Trump's relationship with Putin will affect the Kremlin's approach to Internet governance.
Russia internet expert Andrei Soldatov, author of the book The Red Web, says the Kremlin "certainly looks for something close to the China approach these days, mostly because many other things failed--filtering is porous, global platforms defy local legislation and are still available." Soldatov says that Moscow would like to put "critical infrastructure" under direct government control, such as the national system of domain distribution, internet exchange points and cables that cross borders. But this approach, which may not be successful, is more of an emergency measure than a realistic attempt to regulate the internet on a day-to-day basis.
It is probably too late to cut Russia off from the World Wide Web. China, on the other hand, recognized early on that the internet was both an opportunity and a threat. Beijing wanted to enjoy the economic gains of connectivity without sacrificing political control. "The Russian internet is very well connected and very competitive," explains Leonid Volkov, opposition politician and founder of Russia's Internet Protection Society. "The Chinese internet developed itself as a very closed structure from the very beginning, the Runet didn't."
China's isolated internet culture has given rise to formidable domestic companies. It was once easy to dismiss China's local tech players as mere "copycats"--Sina Weibo imitating Twitter, Baidu imitating Google, and so on. But now, some of these companies, notably Tencent's WeChat, have become so powerful that we may soon see Western companies imitating them. Chinese domestic players have become so successful that many internet users aren't longing for their Western competitors.
One could argue that these companies' prowess is largely due to the fact that Facebook and Twitter were blocked and Google dramatically exited the country, citing concerns about censorship and cybersecurity. In Russia, on the other hand, U.S. tech companies like Google have made significant traction. Facebook may not be as popular as the Russia social network VKontakte (VK), but the American platform has a devoted following, especially among political activists. "The Facebook audience is much smaller than VK's," Volkov says. But he adds that those users make up "the whole cultural, scientific, political elite. In my opinion, the decision-makers in Kremlin do clearly realize: The potential harm of blocking the Facebook is higher than the potential benefit."
Soldatov agrees. "VK is popular among a completely different audience. The Facebook audience is much more loyal to the platform, it's mostly urban advanced intelligentsia. They learned to use Facebook shortly before or during the protests in Moscow and they won't give it up because of the pressure--they use Facebook as the place for debate, not to share cats."
This raises a larger question: How can a government deprive citizens of an internet freedom that they once enjoyed? There are at least some signs that Russian internet users will put up a fight. A Russian petition in protest of anti-terror laws that would threaten internet freedom, reached more than 100,000 signatures in just a little over a month. Russians also came out to protest, sending the message that "the internet belongs to us."
Not even China can completely control the internet. Those who are determined to find information can find a tool, say a virtual private network, to jump over the firewall. China has been home to a relatively small but energetic Twitter population, for example, despite the fact that the service is blocked. Russian censors will face the same challenge. In recent years there has been an ongoing increase in Russian use of Tor, a browser that can be used to circumvent censorship. As a Global Voices article noted, "the increase in censorship closely mirrors the upward trend in interest towards Tor."
While the Russian government uses the internet and other media to spread its own propaganda, Putin also understands that technology can be a weapon of the opposition. The internet on its own will not cause a revolution in Russia, but if a revolutionary moment arose, technology would be a powerful tool for organization. Beijing figured this out a long time ago, and now the Kremlin understands it too.
Emily Parker is the author of the nonfiction book Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, about internet activism in China, Cuba and Russia, and a former staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.