THE ANTISOCIAL NETWORK
Is Russia Prepping for War by Cracking Down on Social Media?
Putin may want to build his own version of the Great Firewall of China. But it's a little late for that.
MOSCOW—Andrei Lugovoi has a certain fame outside of Russia. The former KGB officer is wanted in Great Britain for his alleged role in the murder of the dissident former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 using the very high-tech poison, polonium-210.
But in Russia, Lugovoi is now a prominent member of the State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, where last week he introduced a new legislative project which could poison the internet that many Russians, particularly younger ones, have grown used to.
The idea is to isolate Russia from the supposedly sinister and politically problematic influences of social media, much as China has done, banning or limiting Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other websites.
It’s well known that Lugovoi represents the views of the “siloviki” or law enforcement agencies. Every time he proposes a legislative project, the parliament members know that the ideas are shared at Lubianka, the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
In their world, the country is getting ready for war. In the world many young Russians live in—or want to live in—the internet is more about freedom and amusement, whether chatting on Facebook, checking news on Twitter, checking out entertainers on YouTube, or posting photographs on Instagram.
One day last week, for instance, two young women were laughing in the Moscow subway as they watched Yuriy Dud, who has made his YouTube rep asking celebrities uncomfortable questions. He has more than four million subscribers. Indeed, as in the West, young Russians prefer YouTube to television. At least 62 million unique users, mostly in the 20 to 35 age bracket go to the website every month, simply because “YouTube is more fun,” Polina Raskina, a second-year student at Moscow State University, told The Daily Beast.
But as government pressure mounts, that fun might soon be over. Google reportedly has agreed to cooperate with the Kremlin and has deleted about 70 percent of banned websites from its search results in Russia.
Authorities here who are talking up the possibility of war with the West do not like the idea of young people using “foreign” social media on the “American-controlled internet.” They are also girding for retaliation amid the multiple accusations by the United States and other Western powers that Russia uses the internet to influence elections and otherwise attack its adversaries.
The Daily Beast spoke with the deputy head of the Committee on Information Policy at the State Duma, Andrei Svintsov, about the new legislation.
“The time has come for Russia to secure its internet,” he said, suggesting some trial runs. “For example, we could try to disconnect one of the Russian Federation’s regions from the world’s internet, to research, provide feedback and make sure that trains do not go off the rails.”
Russian authorities plan to run a test some time before April 1. The ostensible purpose is to make sure Russian ISPs can continue to operate internally if foreign powers try act to cut the country's online access, but the the eventual result could be complete government control.
President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party supported the legislative project on Wednesday, and in fact nobody argued much about what's dubbed the Digital Economy National Program. “We have all agreed, that we need the legislation, which would allow us to create a new information infrastructure, just like a military infrastructure or a road infrastructure,” Svintsov added.
Ideally, Russia wants to have its own domestic versions of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other popular websites, as China does, but nobody knows how long and especially how expensive that wish list would be.
The authors of the new legislation calculated the budget for creating some kind of independent Russian internet would be 20 billion rubles ($304.5 million). Interfax news agency reported earlier that the state budget already includes 1.8 billion rubles ($27.4 million) for defense of the Russian internet in the upcoming year.
“The new law has a positive side about protecting our country from foreign aggression,” Vadim Dengin, the first deputy head of the parliament committee, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
Dengin cited as an example of a Western threat the question of Russia being cut off from the SWIFT internationals banking system, which would make it very hard for it to process payments for oil or other commodities.
This idea has been floated repeatedly in the West, but came up again in early December when U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker was asked by the Voice of America whether cutting off SWIFT was an option after Russia fired on Ukrainian naval vessels and seized 24 Ukrainian personnel in November.
Volker’s response was measured: "People refer to it as a nuclear option. It would have costs for everybody involved. Big costs for Russia, but big costs for allies as well. Ultimately, we have to keep it on the table as a possibility because we just can't continue to see Russia launch further steps of aggression in its neighborhood like this."
He warned the captives must be released by Christmas. In the event, they still have not been freed, and SWIFT has not been cut. But according to Dengin, Moscow quickly concluded that if SWIFT can be cut, the West can cut Russia off from the entire web.
So thought was given to retaliation.
“The international internet cables go through Russia to Central Asia,” Dengin threatend. “If we are cut off, the other countries will be cut off as well; so we need to be prepared now.”
The supporters of the new legislation claim that the world is ready to cut Russia off from the global internet on orders from Washington but nobody seems to know how that actually would be possible.
“To be honest, nobody explains to us how this ‘Chinese’ turn toward an independent internet would be technically possible without somebody actually planning to cut the cables on the bottom of the ocean connecting Russia to the global network,” Dengin said. “We should also understand how we are going to be able to read international newspapers online; even in China people manage to use Facebook through VPNs.”
Many observers are laughing at Lugovoi’s proposals. China started building its Great Firewall some 20 years ago. “Now it is too late,” deputy editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, Olga Bychkova, told The Daily Beast. “Cutting Russia off from the external internet is the same as cutting electricity off all over the country, it is simply impossible.”
A threat of social instability inside Russia is another reason why Russian authorities have been discussing the creation of the Kremlin-friendly internet. Earlier this month Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin used Facebook to organize protests against illegal garbage disposals and snow-melting chemicals.
"The Kremlin wants to use the Chinese and Iranian experience to turn Russia into a non-civilized state,” said Yashin. “But the opposition is not sitting still either. We also study the experience of Chinese and Iranian civil societies, we know how to organize protests without Facebook."
Back in 2011 Robert Shlegel, a Duma deputy at the time, received a “Runet Award” for helping to create the country’s top-level domain code: .Рф. A former activist in Nashi, the Kremlin’s youth movement, Shlegel realized that young Russians would never embrace the idea of the Chinese internet policy and struggled to agree on the Duma’s behalf with rules suitable for Russia at the European Parliament.
“I prepared a report for the Council of Europe in 2013 about international legislation for the internet, which would protect it from the further fragmentation — which is happening now — but then Russia left the PACE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and that discussion stopped,” Shlegel told The Daily Beast.
Internet censorship has developed quickly nonetheless, but the methods are old school: prison for the those disobeying the rules. In last three to four years thousands of people have ended up behind the bars, punished for clicking “likes” or reposting somebody’s statements on social media.
“Now the times are different and so are the proposals from what we discussed back in 2014,” says Shlegel. “I have the impression that the world, including Russia, is preparing for a war. Some countries are building a domestic version of the Great Firewall of China.
“Look at the latest trends: Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, Turkey are taking one direction, shifting further away from the so-called free world; but even in the other ‘free’ part of the world there are concerns about internet security.”
As Shlegel sees it, further fragmentation is inevitable.
To young Russians like Polina Raskina, life without the international internet is unimaginable. “If tomorrow I am left without my social media websites, I would not know how to get in touch with my university friends; even our professors inform us about our schedules on social media,” Raskina said.
She says she is quite serious about pursuing a career in entertainment journalism, and needs to follow Western music and trends. “YouTube is where we get our news, where we find our favorite bloggers and music clips, all of us watch it,” says Polina.
But that may soon be a thing of the past.