With coercion and black boxes, Russia installs digital iron curtain


Russia’s most daring steps to censor the internet began in the most mundane way – with a series of emails and bureaucratic forms.

The messages, sent by Russia’s powerful Internet regulator, asked for technical details – like traffic numbers, equipment specifications and connection speeds – from companies providing Internet and telecommunications services across the country. Then the black boxes arrived.

Telecommunications companies had no choice but to step back as government-certified technicians installed the equipment alongside their own computer systems and servers. Sometimes locked behind a lock, the new equipment was hooked up to a command center in Moscow, giving authorities surprising new powers to block, filter and slow down websites they didn’t want the Russian public to see.

The process, underway since 2019, represents the start of perhaps the most ambitious digital censorship effort in the world outside of China. Under President Vladimir Putin, who once called the Internet a “CIA project” and sees the Web as a threat to his power, the Russian government is trying to bring the country’s once-open and free Internet into line.

The equipment has been stored in the equipment rooms of Russia’s largest telecommunications and internet service providers, including Rostelecom, MTS, MegaFon and Vympelcom, a senior Russian lawmaker revealed this year. It affects the vast majority of the nation’s more than 120 million wireless and home internet users, according to researchers and activists.

The world got a first glimpse of Russia’s new tools in action when Twitter was slowed down in the country this spring. This was the first time the filtering system had been implemented, researchers and activists said. Other sites have since been blocked, including several linked to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“It’s something the world can copy,” said Laura Cunningham, the former head of the US State Department’s Internet Freedom Programs. “Russia’s model of censorship can be quickly and easily replicated by other authoritarian governments. “

Russia’s censorship technology sits between companies that provide internet access and people who browse the web on a phone or laptop. Often compared to intercepting mailboxes, software – known as “deep packet inspection” – filters data flowing through an Internet network, slowing down websites or removing anything it was programmed to do. to block.

The cuts threaten to disrupt Russia’s flourishing digital life. As the political system has clung to Putin’s personality cult, and broadcasters and newspapers face tight restrictions, the online culture is teeming with activism, dark humor, and foreign content. General internet censorship could return the country to a deeper form of isolation, similar to the Cold War era.

“I was born in the era of the ultra-free Internet, and now I see it collapsing,” said Ksenia Ermoshina, a Russian researcher who now works at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

She published an article in April on censorship technology.

The censorship infrastructure has been described by 17 Russian telecommunications experts, activists, researchers and academics with knowledge of the work, many of whom declined to be named for fear of reprisal. The government documents, which were reviewed by the New York Times, also described some of the technical details and demands made to telecommunications and Internet service providers.

Russia is using censorship technology to gain more leverage over Western internet companies, in addition to other tough tactics and legal intimidation. In September, after the government threatened to shut down local employees for Google and Apple, companies removed apps run by Navalny supporters ahead of the nationwide election.

Roskomnadzor, the country’s internet regulator overseeing the effort, can now go further. He threatened to remove YouTube, Facebook and Instagram if they did not block certain content themselves. After authorities slowed down Twitter this year, the company agreed to delete dozens of posts deemed illegal by the government.

Russia’s censorship efforts have met with little resistance. In the United States and Europe, once full-blown champions of an open internet, leaders have remained largely silent amid growing mistrust of Silicon Valley and attempts to regulate the worst themselves. internet abuse. Russian authorities have used Western regulation of the tech industry to justify their own crackdown.

“It is striking that this has not caught the attention of the Biden administration,” said Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration.

He criticized Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter for not speaking out more forcefully against Russia’s policies.

A White House spokesman said the administration had discussed online freedom of expression with the Russian government and also called on the Kremlin to “stop its lobbying campaign to censor criticism.”

In a statement, Roskomnadzor did not address its filtering technology, but said foreign social networks continued to ignore Russian internet laws, which prohibit incitement and content on matters that “divide the state. “, such as drug use and extremist organizations.

“Russian media and information legislation does not allow censorship,” he said, adding that the law “clearly defines the types of content that are harmful and pose a threat” to people. citizens.

Google, owner of YouTube, and Twitter declined to comment. Apple did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Facebook did not specifically address Russia but said it was “committed to respecting the human rights of all who use our products.”

Rostelecom, one of the largest Internet service providers in Russia, addressed questions to Roskomnadzor. MegaFon declined to comment. MTS and Vympelcom did not respond to requests for comment.

Many wonder if Russia has the technical expertise or the political will to cut off major online sources of entertainment, information and work for its citizens. In 2018, before the new censorship technology was put in place, authorities abandoned their efforts to shut down popular messaging service Telegram due to technical issues and public anger. Many see YouTube as a future target due to its use by independent media and critics of the Kremlin, which could cause a backlash.

However, Internet access is increasingly used as an instrument of political power. In recent years, governments in India, Myanmar, Ethiopia and elsewhere have used Internet blackouts to stifle pockets of dissent. Russia suffered internet shutdowns during anti-government protests in southern Ingushetia in 2018 and in Moscow in 2019.

China provided the inspiration. For years, Russian politicians have argued with Chinese officials about creating their own grand firewall, even once meeting the architect of the filters that block foreign sites. In 2019, at the World Internet Conference in China, Roskomnadzor signed an agreement with his Chinese counterpart pledging to strengthen government controls on the Internet.

But unlike China, which has three state-run telecoms that put people online, Russia has thousands of ISPs, making censorship more difficult. This is where black boxes come in, giving government officials a scalpel rather than a hammer to filter specific websites and services without cutting off all access.

Russia has a long history of censorship. For decades, international telephone lines were restricted and radio jammers hampered foreign broadcasts. The state still tightly controls television.

Internet was different. He has been credited with playing a role in Boris Yeltsin’s rise to power in 1991 by allowing pro-democracy groups in Russia and beyond to coordinate and exchange information. In the years that followed, fiber optic cables were laid to connect the country to the global Internet.

Putin tried to put this genius back in the bottle. Surveillance systems are monitoring people’s online activities and some bloggers have been arrested. In 2012, the country passed a law requiring internet service providers to block thousands of banned websites, but this was difficult to enforce and many sites remained available.

In May 2019, Putin signed a new phase: a “Sovereign Internet” law that requires Internet service providers to install “technical means of countering threats” – software-laden equipment that allows the government to track, filter and redirect internet traffic without any involvement. or business knowledge.

The law created a registry of transnational internet cables entering the country and key exchange points where internet networks in Russia connect. This card makes it easier for authorities to shut down parts of the network, experts said.

Since then, hundreds of companies have received orders from Roskomnadzor. The regulator demanded information about companies’ IT systems and what settings to use to allow a government agency, the Center for Monitoring and Management of Public Communications Networks, to remotely access their networks, according to documents shared with the Times.

Then, government-approved contractors installed the filtering equipment, allowing the regulator to block, slow down or redirect traffic, said Mikhail Klimarev, an industry analyst who has worked with Russian internet companies such as Rostelecom. .

“A blocking system is installed at the border of every Russian Internet provider,” he said.

The technology is now present at 500 telecom operator sites, covering 100% of mobile internet traffic and 73% of broadband traffic, a Russian official involved in the program said on Wednesday. By next year, the technology will be present in more than 1,000 locations, the official said.

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