When talking about Russia, words like “democracy” and “freedom of speech” are not the first to come to mind. Censorship and control of media like newspapers and television has always provided the government opportunities to influence the information citizens consume and thus their points of view. However, rise of the Internet and social media presented new opportunities for people to express their anti-government opinions. That is exactly what happened in Russia, my home country.
Many people started blogging and releasing information that compromised the government. Because of social media they could easily and cheaply reach a large population. As social media was becoming a more way to consume information, the anti-government bloggers ability to gain support increased. The biggest anti-government demonstration in Russian history was organized solely with the help of social media and the Internet. Unfortunately, the increasing power of social media started to many initiatives that are trying to limit the freedom of Internet usage. Many laws were issued by Russian government over the last years to control the social media.
Only two days ago a big messenger app was banned in Russia which led me to choose the topic for the blog. Below I will talk about some of the Russian government initiatives that had the biggest impact on limiting the freedom of speech online online.
Bloggers have to register as mass media
As I mentioned earlier blogging was one of the most successful ways to raise awareness of corruption in the Russian government as well as distribute information that was not presented in government-controlled media. Because of that in 2014, a law was created that required bloggers who had more than 3000 followers to register as mass media. That insures that all bloggers who are able to influence public minds have to comply with mass media laws. Some of these laws allow government to issue warnings if they find the content inappropriate and require the media to remove or edit the content. Categories of an inappropriate content include incitement to terrorism, extremism, propaganda of violence and cruelty, information about illegal drugs, and obscene language. Not surprisingly, some of these categories like violence propaganda and extremism have been treated rather broadly and used to remove content compromising political figures or government as a whole.
Another big event happened in 2016 when LinkedIn was banned in Russia. The reason for the ban was the failure to comply with the new data localization law. This law obliged personal data operators to process personal data of Russian citizens using servers located in Russia. That law was passed to make sure that the government can easier access user data. LinkedIn was used as a signal to other foreign social media about the serious government intentions. Some companies like Apple and Google have complied with the new law while other like Facebook and Twitter still hold the data outside of Russia. I guess LinkedIn was banned and used as a target because of its smaller number of users. It allowed Russian government to provide an example without raising a huge uproar among the citizens. In 2018 the government asked Facebook to provide evidence of compliance with the data localization law and is threatening to ban the social media if it can not do so.
LinkedIn ban decreased the amount of Russian users of the social media by 40%. However, 60% still keep accessing LinkedIn through VPNs. Russians used VPNs not only to access LinkedIn but other blocked websites as well. So naturally the government targeted VPNs. In November 2017 a law was passed that bans VPNs that do not restrict to websites deemed illegal. VPNs complying with the law are not banned. VPN services are also now required to register with a special government authority within 30 days. However, it seems that so far the law has not been effective and most VPNs still function in Russia without complying with the law. The law is still recent so it is possible that full effects are yet to be seen. Another part of that law requires users of social media to register with their phone numbers. Similarly, if you want to access free wifi in Russia you have to provide and verify your phone number. This links online activity with real identity.
Finally, just two days ago Russian government banned Telegram, a messenger app popular in the country. Telegram was initially started as a means of communication that can not be accessed by Russian government agencies. It was created by Pavel Durov who also created Russian copy of Facebook. He came up with the idea of a secure messenger when Russian government started prosecuting him and he was forced into an exile. The app was banned because it refused to provide encryption keys to the Russian government. The reasoning was that the app is used by terrorists and thus puts national security in danger. However, true reasons are probably more political. Telegram is a popular means of communication among my Russian friends so it will be interesting to see how the people in Russia will react to yet another restriction on communication.
It is sad to see how freedom of speech is declining in Russia and government seems to only want more control. The interesting thing is that I never realized how much the government has already done to control the social media. Each of the initiatives does not seem like a huge step on its own and then everyone adopts and forgets about it. And then another controlling law is passed and the same thing happens. I wonder if there is a limit on how much government control people can tolerate or they will only realize the full effect of these laws when it is too late.