The recent threats by Russian authorities to block access to popular U.S.-based websites such as Google come amid a larger and growing effort by the Kremlin to wall off sections of the Internet from Russians.
What’s more troubling: there’s new research that suggests the Russian public may be ambivalent.
Last week, the Kremlin’s Internet and media regulator Roskomnadzor sent letters to the U.S.-based web services Twitter, Facebook and Google, requesting large amounts of private information on Russian’s who use their services. Additionally, Roskomnadzor authorities asked that various pages deemed illegal for advocating “unsanctioned protests” in Russia be permanently taken down.
If the requests are not honored, the letters warned, the websites may be completely blocked in Russia.
“In our letters, we regularly remind of the consequences of violating the legislation.” a Roskomnadzor spokesperson said.
The spokesperson was referring to a law passed by the Duma and signed by President Putin in 2014. It requires Russian bloggers with over 3,000 daily visitors to register with the government, hand over information about their users, and comply with Russian restrictions on what can and can’t be published.
The law was only one of many moves made over the past several years to restrict what Russians can see and say online.
Analyst Gregory Asmolov of the London School of Economics worked for several major Russian newspapers, and now studies the role of the Internet in Russian society.
“We can see a lot of efforts from [Russian-owned] Yandex to oppose this legislation, but eventually they are based in Russia.," he noted. "Google is quite vulnerable because on the one hand it can be accused of being a foreign agent. But on the other hand still they are not owned by Russia, so they have some space and some kind of flexibility in how to respond to these type of requests and new forms of legislation.”
Asmolov says restrictions on Internet content also include broad-based definitions of extremism.
“The government defines what extremism is about. And that is really a problem, because in this case it can be used against any kind of political opposition," he said.
In the last year, sites run by opposition leaders Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny, and independent media like the Ekho Moskvy radio station and Grani newspaper, among others, have been frozen out. Hundreds of websites based in other countries have also been blocked, including archive.org, which stores screen captures of now-banned sites going back for years.
The government has exerted its control in other ways as well.
In April of 2014, Pavel Durov, founder of the popular VKontakte social network, was fired as CEO and replaced by a Kremlin ally. Durov says he was “forced to flee” the country for refusing to hand over information about Euromaidan protestors.
Given his fiery rhetoric about the evils of the web, there’s no doubt among observers that the push for these and other restrictions comes directly from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president famously called the Internet a “CIA project” designed specifically to diminish Russia’s standing in the world, weaken its government and punish it economically. He has repeatedly vowed to build a Russia-only Intra-net to keep “false information” about his regime at bay and, in the words of blogger and Putin critic Andrei Malgin, has “vowed to kill off the blogosphere.”
It wasn’t always like this, said Russian journalist Ivan Kopakov. “Several years ago, the Russian Internet was one of the freest in the world,” Kolpakov told VOA’s Russian service. “Literally, in the past two or three years, it’s become over-regulated.”
Kolpakov would know.
For years he led the investigative team at the independent Russian journalism website Lenta.ru, which was no friend of Putin. In March of 2014 during Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, Lenta.ru’s head, Galina Timchenko, was removed from office and replaced with a pro-Putin editor. Journalists like Kolpakov decided to move to Riga, Latvia, to start the digital news site Meduza.io, where he serves as deputy editor.
Kolpakov is angered by Russia’s increasing censorship of the web, calling it foolish.
“The most unpleasant thing is that (the new regulations) are baseless; that is, they’re a tool to persecute the disloyal, or to censor information that shouldn’t fall into the hands of average citizens,” he said.
However, new research suggests that even if anti-Putin information were to fall into the hands of Russian Internet users, a sizable portion of them wouldn’t be interested.
Public opinion on censorship
Researchers Erik Nisbet and Sarah Mikati of The Ohio State University surveyed 1,600 Russians on their attitudes about the Internet and freedom of expression online.
Their study concluded that nearly half of those surveyed believe information on the web should be censored, with a near-equal percentage saying news from websites outside Russia should be filtered. Fully one quarter of those asked said they believed the Internet threatens political stability.
“I am not sure if it’s so much about the Internet itself that makes some Russians think it’s a CIA project. It’s more about the rhetoric that permeates Russian political discourse and mass media that colors Russia perceptions about it,” said Nisbet, an associate professor of communication in an email to VOA.
“So Russians who are supportive of the Russian government and its policies and encounter information online that challenges their pre-existing beliefs or attitudes would be naturally skeptical or dismissive of its veracity,” Nisbet said.
“The Kremlin rhetoric about the Internet being controlled by and a tool of the CIA, especially in the context of the conflict with Ukraine, reaffirms this skepticism - and further reduces the likelihood of Russians using the Internet to seek out counter-Kremlin information,” Nisbet said.
Nisbet describes several different types of Internet censorship. One of is the legal route, such as the blogger law, and another is the technical route, such as blocking sites, which he likens to a game of cat-and-mouse.
“It’s a constant game of escalation between Internet censors and circumventors as individuals who are motivated enough can find ways to bypass Internet censorship,” he said.
But the third type is what Nisbet calls the most insidious: self-censorship.
“It’s called motivated reasoning in political psychology. We work backwards from our strongly held beliefs, values, and attitudes to avoid information that might challenge them - and if exposed to information that does challenge them, we process that information in a biased manner that discounts or dismisses it,” Nisbet said.
In other words, said Nisbet, if the public believes the web is dominated by hostile Western interests or threatens national stability, it’s easy to get people to support censorship and even censor themselves. “
“How does the U.S. State Department create a (circumvention) technology to bypass that?” Nisbet asked.
It’s not yet clear if any of the three U.S. companies will comply with the Roskomnadzor requests, and if they do, how much data they will turn over. Email inquiries to Facebook and Google were not returned by publication time.
VOA’s Vadim Alenichev and Henry Ridgwell in London contributed to this report