Commentary Magazine


State Sovereignty and Social Media

In her memoirs, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalls meeting with young Russian entrepreneurs in Moscow and, thinking the audience sympathetic to her concerns, knocked Russia’s state-dominated–and seemingly Soviet inspired–television stations. One of the men agreed: “Here is what our news looks like: The first story is about the great man [Putin]. The second is about agricultural production being up. The third is about whatever innocent people the United States killed today. The fourth is about the chosen successor to the great man.”

But having identified the problem, he seemed to dismiss it in the same breath. “But who watches television? We’re all on the Internet,” he told Rice. The secretary of state then went to meet with Putin’s handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev, and lodged the same complaint to him about Russian state media. He too agreed, and then added: “But who watches television? We’re all on the Internet.”

Rice was surprised by Medvedev’s candor and the young Russians’ nonchalance about state TV propagandizing. No one in Russia, however, would have been: the rowdy Russian blogosphere has long replaced conventional media interaction, though there is some opposition engagement on radio. In the land of head-spinning bureaucracy, the Internet remained largely free and served as a valuable release valve for the Russian people.

But the Russian government has, since Medvedev’s conversation with Rice, sought to chip away at that freedom. And its efforts have increased since the Arab Spring demonstrated–even if it may have exaggerated–the power of social media and online organizing to work toward a more level playing field. Vladimir Putin’s approach to governing in Russia has been guided by the grand bargain: don’t challenge Putin in the political sphere, and you can have basic freedom in your private life. Once Putin sensed the danger the Internet posed to his authority, it went from the latter to the former, as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write at Foreign Policy:

The Single Register, officially introduced on Nov. 1, 2012, aimed to solve this problem. Three government agencies — the Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications), the Federal Antidrug Agency, and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Public Welfare — submit data for the government’s black list of sites. Service providers are then required to block access to sites within 24 hours of their blacklisting on the Single Register.

Since November 1, hundreds of websites have been banned from the Russian Internet….

In August 2012, at a meeting organized by the Ministry of Communications, a working group of representatives of the country’s biggest telecom companies concluded that the only way to implement the law which established the Single Register was through deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows Internet service providers to peer into people’s Internet traffic and read, copy, or even modify e-mails and webpages. DPI also helps identify users — what is downloaded by whom, and who looked for what on the Internet. By late fall 2012, all the biggest telecoms in Russia had DPI operational on their networks.

This effort also built on earlier initiatives. Russia’s security services started buying special software from companies such as Analytic Business Solutions, SyTech, iTeco, and Medialogia for monitoring in the mid-2000s. The most famous example was in 2006, on the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, when the Interior Ministry bought a “Random Information Collection System” from the Russian software company Smartware — as a precaution, it claimed, against extremism. Now dozens of Russian companies supply software to monitor the activities of opposition groups — or anyone, theoretically — in social networks.

They also report on the evidence that Russia’s foreign intelligence agency is working to develop software that would enable it to manipulate social media at home and abroad, specifically aimed at the former Soviet states in Russia’s near-abroad. At a recent international conference, Soldatov and Borogan write, the Russian delegation pushed for Internet-based “sovereignty” protections which, when combined with the attempts to control social media in nominally independent Eastern European states, would amount to a kind of digital sphere of influence–something they plan to push for again at the next meeting of the G8. Soldatov and Borogan also raise the possibility that Putin will try to force companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google (mainly for its Gmail component) to host their Russian activities on Russian soil: “If this were to happen, such services would then be subject to local legislation and forced to build in backdoors for monitoring or manipulation by the secret services.”

Putin may be overestimating his ability to control Russia’s Internet or stay one step ahead of his savvy and spirited opposition. But he certainly hasn’t misread the West, which has done everything possible in the last few years to reinforce Putin’s sense of entitlement to a sphere of influence. If he can have such leeway on land, it’s no surprise he believes he can have such border control in cyberspace. Activists the world over will no doubt be paying close attention to whether the West will fold on this too.

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