News / Science & Technology

Russia Tightens Grip on the Internet

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts a live televised call-in show, in Moscow, April 17, 2014. Putin has vowed to "kill off the blogosphere" by year's end
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts a live televised call-in show, in Moscow, April 17, 2014. Putin has vowed to "kill off the blogosphere" by year's end
These are not easy days to blog or use social media in Russia – particularly, analysts say, if you’re critical of the Kremlin’s current occupant.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders want to “kill off the blogosphere” by year’s end, Andrei Malgin, an outspoken Putin critic, wrote on his “Notes From a Misanthrope” blog.
Putin stoked more speculation Thursday when he referred to the Internet at a media forum as “a CIA project,” one that was “still developing as such.”
The Web has drawn Putin’s ire for years, but pressure on his and the Kremlin’s detractors has been increasing, proponents of press freedom say.
Last month, the Kremlin blocked the websites of opposition leader Garry Kasparov, the independent Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station and the online newspaper Grani.
Garry Kasparov, Russia's most prominent opposition leader and former world chess champion holds a news conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France Wednesday, May 23, 2007Garry Kasparov, Russia's most prominent opposition leader and former world chess champion holds a news conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Garry Kasparov, Russia's most prominent opposition leader and former world chess champion holds a news conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Garry Kasparov, Russia's most prominent opposition leader and former world chess champion holds a news conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France Wednesday, May 23, 2007
On Monday, Pavel Durov, founder of the country’s most popular social network, VKontakte, said he was fired as CEO and forced to flee to Central Europe after refusing to hand over Euromaidan protesters’ private information to Russian authorities.
Also this week, Russia’s State Duma passed a bill that, if signed into law by Putin, would require bloggers with over 3,000 daily viewers to register with the government. They’d face the same scrutiny – some say censorship – experienced by Russian TV and newspapers.
 “These are all very alarming developments,” said Eva Galperin of the Internet freedom organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF.  “It’s all bad.” 
Analysts say these actions indicate authorities intend to seize greater control of what Russian citizens can see and say online.
But controlling the Internet is notoriously difficult, Internet experts say, and Russian activists are finding ways to slip past the Kremlin’s efforts to censor the web.
Threat from social networks
Much of the current crackdown stems from December 2011, when thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest Putin’s campaign to return to the presidency, journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan wrote in Wired. Protesters used social networks such as VKontakte and LiveJournal to vent their outrage and organize actions.
The protests came on the heels of the “Arab Spring” uprisings that were fueled at least in part by online activists, raising the stakes for the Russian regime, Soldatov and Borogan wrote.
The Kremlin appeared to be caught flat-footed by the opposition’s use of social networks, the two wrote. They said their sources in the secret services found Kremlin operatives to be technically “powerless to deal with social networks, especially any that were based outside of the country, such as Facebook and Twitter.”
Initially, the Kremlin responded by setting up a series of Internet blocks to stop Russians from visiting sites it considered troublesome.
That strategy proved ineffective. “Blocking access to sites is very trivial and takes almost no technical capacity to do,” said Steven Wilson, a lecturer on Russian politics and the Internet at Virginia Tech.  “In the long run it’s not very useful, because it’s like playing Whac-A-Mole and not really accomplishing anything.”
When a government blocks a site, it essentially instructs the nation’s Internet service providers to simply not route any traffic to or from that site’s specific numeric Internet address.
Experts say blocks are easily defeated by using proxy servers abroad or circumvention software such as a VPN. The Turkish government found that out after attempting a wholesale block of Twitter in March. Even before a Turkish court ordered the Erdogan government to lift the ban, many Twitter users found ways to slip past it.
The challenge of DPI
The Russian government in 2012 began investing in something known as “deep packet inspection,” or DPI for short, Soldatov and Borogan wrote.
Visiting a website isn’t like phoning a friend, with one constant connection allowing conversation. Instead, all web traffic is broken into countless smaller “packets,” each separately routed to its destination and back again.
Normally, ISPs and routers just look at the packet’s top, or “header,” to send it on its way.  However, using specialized DPI equipment, the service providers – or the government –can peek into the packet’s content, gaining access to all sorts of private information.
Conducting deep packet inspection even on a small scale is technically complicated and even more expensive. That’s probably why only China has implemented it on a mass scale.
Russian authorities have quietly been purchasing DPI systems from a variety of manufacturers, including Israel’s RGRCom, Canada’s Sandvine and China’s Huawei.
That, along with increasing restrictions on online activity, is raising fear of an even harsher crackdown.
“There’s definitely a move toward greater control and censorship of the Internet,” the EFF’s Galperin said, “and a reframing of the Russian government’s attitude toward the Internet that is focused on all of the bad things that people are able to say on it, and going after opposition members and people saying things that they don’t like.”
Social media appear to be of highest concern, Galperin said, in part because of the 2011 protests and its widespread use.
“The bothersome thing about social media is that anyone can post to it, and there aren’t a lot of immediate limits on what you can say,” she said.
Buying control of Russia’s web
Centralization of Internet control represents another concern. “We’re definitely seeing a consolidation of ownership of Internet companies under allies of the Putin regime,” said Wilson, the Virginia Tech expert on Russian Internet.
For example, financial control of VKontakte – Russia’s largest social network and Europe’s second most popular – has been secured by investors with close ties to the Putin Administration.

United Capital Partners, controlled by Putin ally Ilya Sherbovitch, quietly acquired a 48 percent stake with assistance from Igor Sechin, head of the state-owned gas giant Rosneft. The remaining 52 percent is owned by Alisher Usmanov, a billionaire industrialist and co-owner of mobile provider MegaFon. Sherbovitch, Sechin and Usmanov are all said to have Putin’s ear.

In announcing his resignation as CEO, VKontakte founder Pavel Durov posted "Today, VKontakte goes under the complete control of Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov."

For several years, Russia has restricted access to Western-based firms like Facebook, WordPress, Twitter, Google and others, thus channeling online users to the Russian firms.
Wilson said he thinks it unlikely that Putin’s allies will stop with VKontakte.  “Russia is in a relatively unique situation in that (it) actually (has) companies distinct from the western companies, like Facebook and Twitter, that the majority of bloggers and social media are on,” he said. “And those are the companies that Putin has gobbled up.”
Another is LiveJournal, which analysts say is Russia’s most popular blogging platform. It’s owned by the firm SUP, which is controlled by, among others, Alexander Mamut. The oligarch has been described as “Putin’s man.”
Because LiveJournal is a Russian firm with at least some of its servers located in the country, it has to follow Russia’s changing laws about Internet use and control.
Knowing a company’s ownership is one of the best ways for Russians to evade the growing online censorship, Virginia Tech’s Wilson said.
“There’s no reason to be blogging on a platform owned wholesale by allies of the Kremlin,” he said.  “… There are all sorts of free alternatives that (Russians) could easily migrate to.”
Fighting limits on control
Russians have proven adept at outsmarting government censorship with an ever-changing variety of tools, a few of which are detailed here.
However, these evasions are often a game of cat and mouse: Once a government catches on to a new trick, authorities will move to block it, leading to yet another trick, and on and on.
Growing ranks of Russians are also turning to various circumvention tools that can help protect their anonymity online while evading Internet blocks. Among the more popular of these are i2p, VPNs, fri-Gate and Tor. (VOA’s parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, provides financial support to several circumvention tools, including Tor.)
Putin’s recent accusation that the Internet is a CIA project may be little more than bluster, analysts say, though it may signal Moscow’s intent to step up its own Internet surveillance.
But there may be a limit on how much Internet control the Russian government can seize.
Building a comparable effort would require a legion of advanced engineers and vast sums of money, Wilson said.
“Russia’s particular limit on any ambitious government project has always been one of corruption,” he said. Despite having “a very large pile of foreign cash reserves,” it hasn’t been able to address “basic things like roads between their cities [that are] almost completely inadequate. If [Russians] try and spend any of that money, it will disappear down the rabbit hole of corruption.”

Update April 28: This article was corrected to accurately reflect that UCP owns a 48 percent share of VKontakte, and the Alisher Usmanov owns 52 percent, and also that Ilya Sherbovitch is UCP's principal manager.

Doug Bernard

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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Comment Sorting
by: senyi from: china
April 30, 2014 2:46 AM
so the netizen in Russia need the tech we had develop,the way to break thru the wall.

by: AAR from: Global
April 29, 2014 1:00 AM
These dictators can't stand a free and open can tell by the list of dictators trying to shut it down.....Putin-Russia Erdogan-Turkey Kim jong -N korea Castro-Cuba ....Iran....China...ect.......etc...etc....

by: Anthony from: Califonria
April 28, 2014 12:11 AM
The little guy has finally flipped. Probably because Alina Babaeva gave him the cold shoulder. www.UkraineAirlift dotcom

by: Vanny from: US
April 27, 2014 5:56 PM
Everyone in Russia and the world knows what the Kremlin and Putin are up to. They also know that the state TV is just another brainwash machine. Just look up "не смотрю телевизор" (do not watch TV). It's becoming a popular trend among the young and educated, they are using more social media because they know what is behind the TV everyone else watches.

by: sergei from: moscow
April 27, 2014 2:02 PM
The Russian authorities hate the free media - KGB mentality. The American government was accused today by Russian state TV that it had described "Russia Today" channel as biased. However as I understand the American government allows Russia Today's operation in the USA. At the same time we have practically no opportunity to see CNN, BBC or other western channels. Voice of America also has serious problems in its operation in Russia. It is nessary to increase the broadcasting opportunities of the USA in Russia in English and Russian languages via radio or additional satellites.
In Response

by: China man from: China
April 28, 2014 12:56 PM
Man.You are lucky.In China,almost western top website are banned such as youtube,cnn,facebook,twitter ect.We can not visit to there
In Response

by: Lucy from: USA
April 28, 2014 12:18 AM
Morden Media is morden prostitute. Media is given it's love to whom who is paing more.

by: moomooslice from: usa
April 27, 2014 12:32 PM
Edward snowden should be very disappointed !

by: Gennady from: Russia, Volga Region
April 27, 2014 12:07 PM
I would disagree with the pessimism of abovementioned Eva Galperin from the Internet freedom organization Electronic Frontier Foundation that “These are all very alarming developments. It’s all bad.” It sounds like a paradox but faster and worse Internet freedom in Russia gets - the sooner the world will to see the collapse of authoritarian regime in its death throes. The regime nowadays started to discuss the perspective of going even further - banning Skype, Gmail and Twitter in nowadays Russia. However, Mr Putin and his men from days gone-by should have remembered worthlessness of such heaves. Even in heydays of the Soviet Union authorities failed to disrupt the entire nation’s diversion of listening to foreign radios, getting a gulp of fresh air and discoursing with pals and relatives on govement’s nosedives in the comfort of kitchens of every household of the USSR. It was perfectly shown in the article that censoring the Internet in Russia is the same as to cover the sun with the palm of one’s hand.
In Response

by: Lucy from: USA
April 28, 2014 12:26 AM
Gennady, you doesn't know much. WEst makes desents from people like you to destroy your country only for one reason: MONEY.
Read Soros books about future of Russia and the world.

by: Goldingen from: Greece
April 27, 2014 9:51 AM
Though truth is a dangerous weapon and could destroy a country as large as the communist Empire, the proliferation of truth has not been banned internationaly. Someone has to remove this flaw.

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