First, Russia aims to control the internet infrastructure by owning internet cables running through its territory and connecting it to the rest of the world. Second, the country is “pressuring” websites and internet companies like tech giant Yandex and Facebook alternative VKontakte to censor content. Thirdly, Shakirov says, his pressure on the media is to ban independent media organizations and pass the aforementioned “foreign agents” law. This is followed by forcing people to self-censor what they say online and limiting dissent.
Finally, Shakirov says, there is “restriction of access to information” – blocking of websites. The legal ability to block websites was implemented in 2016 with the adoption of Russia’s sovereign internet law, and since then Russia has been expanding its technical capabilities to block websites. “Now the possibilities of restricting access are developing by leaps and bounds,” says Shakirov.
The sovereign internet law helps build on the idea of RuNet, a Russian internet cut off from the rest of the world. According to Top10VPN’s analysis, more than 2,384 sites have been blocked inside Russia since the war against Ukraine began at the end of February. These range from independent Russian news sites and Ukrainian domains to Big Tech and foreign news sites.
“The Russian government is constantly trying to exert more control over the content that people can access,” says Grant Baker, a technology and democracy researcher at the nonprofit Freedom House. (Roskomnadzor, the country’s media and communications regulator, did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.) All of the internet surveillance measures and surveillance systems, Baker says, are compounded by broader public pressure, including the arrest of more than 16,000 peaceful protesters. and the increased use of facial recognition.
But building a control empire is not easy. China is widely considered the world’s most restrictive online country, with the Great Firewall blocking websites that fall outside its political line. This Chinese “sovereign” model of the Internet took years to flourish, and even the creator of China’s firewall reportedly bypassed it by using a VPN.
As Russia aims to emulate this Chinese model to some extent, it has weakened. When officials tried to block the messaging app Telegram in 2018, they failed and gave up after two years. The establishment of Russia’s vision of RuNet has been plagued by many delays. However, many of Russia’s latest policy announcements are not short-term—internet control is a long-term project. Some events may never be available.
“Given the often blurred distinction between a clear political signal from the Kremlin and ambition, and its effective translation into concrete projects and changes, the impact of all these measures remains difficult to assess in detail,” says senior fellow Julien Nocetti. An employee of the French Institute of International Relations, studies the Internet of Russia.
For example, many Russian-language app stores have appeared in recent months, but many of them have few programs to download. According to an independent newspaper The Moscow TimesRuStore, one of the leading app store contenders, has less than 1000 apps available for download.
Other sovereign internet efforts have also failed. RuTube, Russia’s equivalent of YouTube, has failed to gain traction despite officials rushing to use it. Meanwhile, the website of Rossgram, a yet-to-be-launched potential Instagram alternative, displays a message saying it’s “under development” and warns people not to download versions of the app they can find online because they “come from scammers.”
While many of Russia’s sovereign internet measures have struggled to get off the ground, its ability to block websites has improved since it first tried to throttle Twitter in March 2021. Other nations are following suit. “Countries learn different Internet regulation practices from each other,” Shakirov says. “Russia has decided to create a Chinese version of its Internet, and now other countries of the post-Soviet space, Africa or Latin America can follow this example.”
Lokot says that as more countries try to regulate the Internet and do so with their own national security in mind, the Internet itself is at risk. Lokot says: “When the conversation changes from ‘the Internet as a public good’ to ‘the Internet and access to the Internet as a matter of national security,’ the questions change.” “We’re potentially going to see some really problematic choices made by states — not just authoritarian states, but democracies.”