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
    x
    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

    dbjohnson+voanews.com

    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.

    You May Like

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    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 internet.....you 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.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.