Internet censorship in Russia: Between Chinese conditions and the great disaster

Since 2012, black lists, black box monitoring, data retention and barriers to anonymization services have been increasingly restricting Internet freedom in Russia, but at the same time more and more critical voices are being raised on the Internet.

During a discussion of “Reporters without Borders”, activists drew an ambivalent picture of the effects of state Internet censorship in Russia. On the one hand, people there are being intimidated by more and more surveillance and filtering laws and hundreds of criminal proceedings against users of social networks or online authors, and their freedom of expression is being restricted, explained investigative journalist Irina Borogan. On the other hand, the Russian Internet is currently still very “diverse”.

Citizen journalism against censorship

“There are not only state media, but many video bloggers,” explained the founder of the news site Agentura.ru.

These often come directly “from the people”, are “partly strongly politicized” and fight each other out: “They have become citizen journalists”. At the same time, the number of investigative data journalists had grown “explosively”, albeit from a very low level.

Thanks to virtual private networks (VPNs) or anonymization services such as Tor, anyone interested can find videos within seconds of the opposition politician Alexei Nawalny, for example.

Last year, for the first time, more advertising money flowed into the Internet than into TV stations.

Borogan’s conclusion to date is therefore: “The state power has not managed to suppress the Internet. One could also say: “The entire censorship introduced by the Kremlin was a flop”

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Self-censorship among journalists

“The state has succeeded in getting journalists to behave defensively,” complained Roman Sakharov, who in 2015 won a widely acclaimed ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against the undifferentiated Sorm surveillance system of the Russian secret service FSB, which uses secret black-box devices. Especially in the provinces, self-censorship and conformity thinking are widespread, as the money needed for independent journalism is often lacking.

Sakharov also admitted, however, that “many critical regional advertising-financed websites and portals” have emerged recently. Bloggers and journalists, who had fought each other for a long time, were now mutually supportive. At the same time, trust in news from the state media is declining because it has over-stimulated propaganda, reported the representative of the Foundation for the Protection of Glasnost, who is now living in exile. Employees of troll factories continue to clog search engines and news aggregators, but opinion-making is no longer as effective as it used to be, because people are “tired of it”.

Struggling battle

Artem Kosljuk, chairman of the civil society organization Roskomsvoboda, described the struggle for Internet freedoms in Russia as strenuous. Only a few users are willing to stand up for their rights, the member of the Russian Pirate Party said. On the other hand, Geeks VPNs, Tor & Co. have long since ceased to be the only ones able to use the huge empire. This user group also grows with each new censorship law. Large numbers, millions of people, have recently experienced anonymization services, for example, during a blockade of Pornhub.

Kosljuk explains the fact that the Kremlin does not take online censorship lightly, among other things, by the fact that the network infrastructure differs significantly from that in China and North Korea: “There are many cross-border fiber optic connections, many providers have developed in free competition. For example, there are still low access thresholds to the Internet.

Growing state control of the Internet

However, the outlook of the co-founder of the “Center for Digital Rights” is less rosy. The state is increasingly striving to monopolize the network and control cross-border lines. There is a first draft law, which has hardly been discussed in public, according to which the telecommunications giant Rostelecom and the Ministry of Communications should work to keep Internet traffic as low as possible within Russia. The military was involved in the technical implementation of this intranet, which was reminiscent of North Korea and into which data packets could only be smuggled from outside. The only hope that remains is that such a “big firewall” could cost several billion