Global Internet firms operating in Russia wake up on Tuesday to a new era in Kremlin regulation.
A law now forces tech firms with Russian customers to operate local servers to handle Russian personal data. It’s the latest in a string of about 20 laws tightening government control of the Internet, all put into place since President Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012.
Taken at face value the new program is aimed at protecting the privacy of Russian citizens. It’s not a uniquely Russian idea, and is something Brazil and Germany are also exploring in the post-Snowden era. Yet human rights activists fear the regulation will be misused, allowing officials to spy on citizens and suppress political activists. It comes into force days after Wikipedia was briefly blacklisted because of an article about cannabis.
“The regime is already ramping up censorship and surveillance and using it to target opposition activists, so the requiring of companies to host data on servers in the country makes it easier for the government to access that data,” says Laura Reed, a research analyst from Freedom House.
In theory Russia’s intelligence services need a court order to access any data, but observers say they are rarely turned down.
All eyes are now on Facebook, Google and Twitter, which have been meeting with the Kremlin in private to make sense of the law. At this stage it’s not clear whether they will agree to comply. Google declined to comment. Facebook simply says it won’t comment on speculation, and that “we regularly meet with government officials and have nothing more to share at this time.”
Russian investigative journalist and author Andrei Soldatov thinks the lack of transparency is concerning. “If global companies agree to talk in secret, the Russian authorities will think they are ready to cooperate in more sensitive areas,” he says.
After the Protests
The Internet clampdown started after riots in Moscow following Putin’s 2012 re-election. The mass protests prompted the Kremlin to wake up to the power of social media.
A series of quickly drafted laws are now enforced by Internet regulator Roskomnadzor, which has the power to block websites without court rulings - sometimes because of a single article containing banned content. That can include anything considered to harm children, linked to extremism, or that incites illegal gatherings.
Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated since 2012, and the situation is now being exacerbated by a weak ruble and trade sanctions imposed since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Businesses face a bureaucratic overload, foreign companies are leaving Russia (Google moved an engineering office to Poland and Microsoft closed its Moscow development office for Skype), talent is fleeing. Russia’s once-flourishing Internet sector is now stagnating.
Wikipedia’s run-in with the regulator made it just the latest popular Internet service to be blocked within Russia:
- Software repository GitHub was blocked over a suicide reference
- Social network Reddit was banned because of a single post about magic mushrooms
- Internet archive The Wayback Machine was blacked out over a post deemed extremist by regulators
- Satirical wiki site Lurkmore (1.2 million visitors per month) was closed because of “extremist” content
- The editor of news site Lenta.ru was dismissed for publishing an “extremist” interview with a Ukrainian nationalist in March 2014.
Critics – and those affected – say the regulations encourage self-censorship, often prompted by fear of fines or jail time. Roskomnadzor did not respond to several requests for comments on the issue.
Lurkmore founder Dmitry Homak fled Russia and now lives in Israel. “You can’t assure any investor that your site won’t be blocked, or that you won’t be labeled as a traitor or criminal,” he says.
“I’m just trying to recover. Everything I did for 15 years was stomped, crashed and burned.”
Galia Timchenko, the sacked Lenta.ru news editor, moved to Latvia to set up a new Russian news site, Meduza, which she says would be “much harder” to operate in Russia. “The situation is getting worse and worse by the day,” she says.
Even Pavel Durov, the founder of Vkontakte, Russia’s most successful social network, quit after a lengthy dispute over Ukraine with the company’s new Putin-friendly owners.
Only the biggest players such as Yandex – Russia’s equivalent to Google – have been able to resist the administrative pressures.
Despite evidence that the Kremlin tried to manipulate Yandex.News, the search giant’s news aggregator, critics say it hasn’t really mastered the art. “They don’t know how to control Yandex, because they don’t understand how it works,” says blogger Anton Nossik, who founded Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru.
The next legal milestone will be the introduction of a “right to be forgotten” law on Jan. 1, 2016. This will hold search engines such as Yandex and Google liable for linking to information that individuals want to be deleted, with a possible fine of up to 3 million rubles ($45,000). Unlike the EU version of the law, the Russian model lets public figures ask for links to be removed from search results if they can show the information is inaccurate or outdated.
“If the law works, every policeman who got drunk and ran over a baby can try to sue Yandex,” says Nossik. He believes all Internet businesses will end up answering to “Putin’s cronies” or going out of business.
“Many of us tried to bring international culture to the post-Soviet media,” says Dmitry Homak, of Lurkmore. “We succeeded at first, but then everything turned sour.”
Additional reporting by Ilya Khrennikov