WASHINGTON - 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.
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.