While the construction of the “great firewall of Russia,” which began with Russia’s most recent decision to block LinkedIn, rolls on, it is not going smoothly because digital infrastructure in Russia is lacking. Russia, in its zeal to further repress internet freedoms, is in over its head – speaking in cyber terms – as it tries to manage the magnitude of new data that its latest initiative demands.
Thus Russia has turned to its crony in clampdowns, China, to help bail it out. If this were a movie, it might be titled, “The Great Firewall Rescues the Red Web.”
China has written the playbook on how to effectively coerce legitimate private companies to do digital dirty work on behalf of the state. Russia is hoping that the Chinese government’s experience in leveraging off-the-shelf technologies can get it out of the mess it has created for itself by enacting Yarovaya’s Law. The measure further threatens the privacy of Russian citizens by requiring telecommunications providers to hold information about their customers’ online history for a longer period of time.
According to the initiative, telecoms and internet providers must store users’ data for six months, and metadata for three years. Along with the fact that, as a result, the Russian government will have the ability to see everything a person has ever looked at on the internet, comes the stark and humbling reality that it lacks the technological know-how to deal with the new slew of data generated by the law. Enter China.
“China remains our only serious ‘ally,’ including in the IT sector,” a Russian IT industry source commented. A pariah now to the technology-rich West, Russia has no alternative but to look to China.
Beijing and Moscow have held myriad and substantive talks on the issue already this year. Back in April at a cybersecurity forum, the Illuminati in attendance included top Chinese and Russian officials close to Vladimir Putin (as expected), but also Fang Binxing, the reputed father of the Great Firewall. His presence leaves little doubt about the aim of the confab: to replicate the Great Firewall in Russia. But the Russians will need more than just the blueprint, they need the know-how.
What the Russians want most from China is technology. Russia has no means of handling the vast amounts of data required by Yarovaya’s law. There was a time when a less bellicose Kremlin could count on eager Western companies to provide the technology in exchange for entrance into its vast market. However, Putin’s belligerent moves in Ukraine, and the resulting sanctions, closed that avenue to Russia. Its conduit is likely to be the Chinese tech giant Huawei, which is akin to an arm of the Chinese government (regardless of who appears to be nominally in charge of it).
The Russians have been conspiring with Huawei to buy technologies for data storage, and to produce servers that can effect Yarovaya’s law. Also, key Huawei staff have been on hand at many information conferences held throughout the year. Gordon Chang, author of the book The Coming Collapse of China said of Huawei recently,
”Its origins are murky, its growth far too fast for a private company in China, state officials support its efforts, and the absence of competition from state enterprises is another important tell.”
Right up Russia’s alley.
A key player in the push for the tilt toward China, and not coincidentally pivotal in the implementation of Yarovaya’s Law, is Konstantin Malofeev, the oligarch who founded orthodox channel Tsargrad TV. He has been shut out of doing business with the West due to personal sanctions levied against him for the Ukraine incursions, and may have an axe to grind.
Russia and China have, at times, had a contentious relationship, especially over geographical issues, as they share a long border. But on the topic of repression of rights and the suppression of personal freedoms, they are a match made in heaven. In the area of cyber-censorship, it’s almost as though they’ve been going tit-for-tat, trying to one-up each other.
On 7 November, for example, China adopted a controversial cybersecurity law that revived international concerns about censorship in the country, and which seems to mirror Russia’s latest legislation on data localization. These rules, which oblige “critical information infrastructure operators” to be stored domestically, are another hurdle for Western companies to navigate. And it is just more evidence that, when it comes to maintaining power by keeping its citizens in the dark, there is more that binds the two countries than separates them.