Taking a cue from China, Russia is pulling out all the stops in its attempt to stymie free speech via an Internet cut-off. It failed, mainly because the Internet has gained a foothold in Russia over the past twenty years, unlike the situation in China. However, the disclosure of Putin’s latest attempt to cement control should send shivers through privacy and freedom-loving people everywhere. This action, coupled with Russia insinuating itself into the Syrian conflict, should serve as a wake-up call for both in the tech world and the Russian citizenry, while real information can still enter the country via the Internet.
China is currently reeling from its decades-long stifling of the Internet, and the information attendant to it. It’s $10 trillion economy (second by a large margin to the $18 trillion US economy) is suffering from information deprivation that prevents it from getting good information about its economy. By comparison, Russia’s economy is puny – less than $3.5 trillion and tanking. Putin is therefore pulling out all the stops to ensure that people will not know how bad it has become, and so that his popularity and power won’t be questioned.
However, by focusing on disrupting the Internet, he is biting off his nose to spite his face. Unless, of course, this is a prelude to a broader information blackout, should the downward spiral in Russia become more severe.
In this most recent clamp-down, the objective was to see whether the Runet (an informal name for the Russian internet) could continue to function in isolation from the global internet. It failed mainly because other smaller service providers, who have gained a toehold in Russia over the years and account for 50 percent of Internet traffic, continued to transmit information and data in and out of the country.
In typical Kremlin fashion, it quickly stated that this attempt at suppression did not happen. It seems to follow-on, however, from a similar embargo attempt last summer when the security agencies collaborated with the national telephone operator to see if a national intranet made up of domain names ending in .ru could continue to function if separated from the larger Internet.
The experiment was apparently ordered by a paranoid President Putin, but Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian security, deemed this exercise a “pretext”,
“This is actually just one of a series of such experiments, and it gives us a very good idea of what they have in mind. If you look at the doctrine of information security, it is all about the same thing: the fear of Western countries using the internet as an instrument of influence in Russia and so on.”
In other words, Putin would have us believe that the West would seek to darken Russia in a potential new round of sanctions, and so he is being proactive. But it is more likely that this latest experiment is just another tool to consolidate his power, and keep his citizenry from the truth.
Russia has introduced a number of restrictive measures on the Internet to gain control of the information flow, among which is the blacklisting of “extremist” websites, and making bloggers with more than 3,000 readers subject to the same regulation as large circulation newspapers and television. Despite actions to the contrary, these attempts to undermine the Internet are bound to fail, thanks to Russia’s proximity to countries that support a vigorous Interne,t and because western financial interests are too entrenched there.
But Putin persists. This is a worrisome development that is not likely to be abandoned while the Russian economy teeters on the brink, and Putin and his cronies circle the wagons..