Six Steps Russia Is Taking Toward Restricting Its Internet

The Russian State Duma on March 7 passed twin bills to stop the spread of "fake news" as well as information that "disrespects" Russia’s government, its symbols, and society.

Critics say the legislation, which awaits a presidential signature to become law, is part of a broader Kremlin effort to silence free speech on the Internet. And it comes amid signs that a wealth of misleading information spread online in the West leads back to Russia.

Here are some other steps that Russia has taken -- or plans to -- in its effort to rein in the web:

Sovereign Internet

The State Duma is also mulling a bill that would require Russian web traffic and data to be rerouted through points controlled by the state, and for the creation of a domestic Domain Name System.

Backers of the so-called "sovereign Internet" bill say it will make what they call the Russian segment of the Internet -- known as the Runet -- more independent. They argue it is needed to guard Russia against potential cyberattacks.

That legislation -- passed on its first reading on February 12 -- would require the installation of specialized equipment that would make it easier to block websites banned by the government with greater efficiency.

Critics say the bill would do great damage to Internet freedom in Russia.

"This is very serious," the news agency AFP quoted Russian security analyst Andrei Soldatov, the co-author of a book on the history of Internet surveillance in Russia, as saying of the bill.

"This is a path toward isolating Russia as a whole...from the Internet," he said.

Banning Telegram 

In April 2018, Russia blocked Telegram after the popular messaging app refused to comply with a Russian court order to give security services access to users’ encrypted messages.

Amnesty International said that blocking Telegram -- used by senior government officials and Kremlin foes alike -- would be "the latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression" in Russia.

Many Russians took to the streets to protest Kremlin efforts to silence the messaging app.

The government effort to shut down Telegram ran into a glitch. Millions of IP addresses got caught in Russia's cyberdragnet.

Among those affected was Viber, another popular messaging app, that said on April 16 that some users in Russia were experiencing problems using the app to make calls.

Ban On VPNs 

In July 2017, the Kremlin tightened control over the Internet with fresh restrictions. Putin signed into law a bill to prohibit the use of Internet proxy services -- including virtual private networks, or VPNs -- and cracking down on the anonymous use of instant messaging services.

Amnesty International called the development a "major blow to Internet freedom" in Russia.

"To understand how the ban will work, it is enough to look at China, where Apple has just made a deplorable decision to remove most major VPN apps from the local version of its App Store," said Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.

Following The Chinese Model

According to CNN, Russia is seeking to follow the Chinese model on Internet control. And Beijing, according to a recent report by Freedom House, is more than willing to share its know-how.

Beijing has organized "trainings and seminars on new media or information management" with foreign officials, according to Freedom House.

"Beijing is cultivating media elites and government ministers around the world to create a network of countries that will follow its lead on Internet policy," Freedom House said in its Freedom On The Net 2018 report.

Busted For 'Likes'

Russians are already looking over their shoulder when posting, or even clicking "like" on a post. Hundreds have been charged with using the Internet to spread or incite "hatred." As criticism and a backlog of cases mounted, President Vladimir Putin in December 2018 made a rare climb down, softening the punishment for some Internet hate crimes. 

Putin had proposed the change two months earlier, following a string of cases in which Russians were charged with publishing material -- sometimes satirical or seen by many as harmless -- on social networks such as VKontakte and Facebook.

Timing Is Everything

The State Duma introduced its new "fake news" legislation in January as Russia faced fresh charges of spreading misinformation on the Internet.

On January 31, Twitter disclosed that it shut down 418 accounts with alleged Russian links that were suspected of spreading disinformation targeting the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. This came after Facebook removed hundreds of pages, groups, and accounts on both Facebook and Instagram platforms that the U.S. company said were part of two online disinformation operations targeting users across the former Soviet space.