Putin calls the internet a ‘CIA project’ as Russia clamps down on social media

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

April 25, 2014

Despite Putin’s answer to Snowden last week that ‘mass surveillance, we certainly not do it ourselves’, and the fact that such an answer was anyway a very long way from the truth, things got even worse for Russian netizens this week.

Putin supporters take ‘complete control’ of VKontacte

It started on Monday when Russia’s most popular social network, VKontakte, often dubbed ‘the Russian Facebook’ in the West, although with 61 million users in Russia (and 100 million worldwide)  it is four times as popular as Facebook, came under the ‘complete control’ of two of Putin’s closest cronies.

29-year-old entrepreneur and former director of VKontakt, Pavel Durev, claims that he made a mock resignation on 1st April which he had since withdrawn, but this is denied by VKontact who say that the resignation was not withdrawn. Pavel says he only found out about his dismissal on Monday through social media.

This rather odd situation follows recent conflict between Pavel and the government, when Pavel refused to hand over details of people involved in organizing the Ukrainian protest movement that led to a coup in February.

Our response has been and remains a categorical refusal – Russian jurisdiction does not extend to Ukrainian users of VKontakte. Giving personal details of Ukrainians to Russian authorities would not only be against the law, but also a betrayal of all those millions of people in Ukraine who have trusted us.’

Complete control of VKontackte has now been given to Igor Sechin and billionaire Alisher Usmanov, both counted among President Putin’s staunchest supporters.

Facebook, Skype and Gmail are likely to be banned

On Tuesday the Duma (Russian Parliament) passed the ‘Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information’ amendment as part of the country’s anti-terrorism laws. It will require all technology companies to store their data on Russian soil, allowing Russian authorities easy access to it.

It is very unlikely that companies such as Facebook and Google will comply with such demands, so users can expect to see their services banned in the near future. In addition to this, the new legislation gives the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor to the KGB) much greater controls over the internet.

Putin calls the internet a CIA project

Edward Snowden’s critics often accuse him of being responsible for undermining the global nature of the internet, leading to its breakup as countries seek to move away from US surveillance. Supporters on the other hand (which in include us), point out that it is the NSA’s outrageous behavior, not Edward Snowden, that is to blame.

Brazil and Germany in particular have shown a strong desire to build their own internets, which may not be an entirely bad thing in their cases, but when Vladimir Putin suggests it you know it is not good.

On Thursday Putin gave his strongest indication yet that he was considering building a purely Russian system when he told a media conference in St Petersburg that the internet was a ‘CIA project’, and that Russia had a duty resist that influence and fight for its interests online. Of course, any such measures would only strengthen Putin’s already tight control on the internet.


It is fair then to say that this has been a bad week for online freedom in Russia, but fortunately, thanks to the magic of VPN, tech-savvy Russians will be able to continue accessing Facebook, YouTube and Gmail without any trouble, and can surf the internet without the FSB looking over their shoulder.

Of course, all this news does not bode well for the future of internet freedom in Russia, so we will be watching developments there with great interest.

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