Russia strengthens its internet censorship powers

Russia’s boldest moves to censor the Internet began in the most mundane ways – with a series of bureaucratic emails and forms.

Messages sent by Russia’s powerful internet regulator asked companies providing Internet and telecommunications services across the country for technical details — such as traffic numbers, equipment specifications and connection speeds. Then came the black box.

Telecom companies had no option but to step aside as government-approved engineers installed their computer systems and equipment along with servers. Sometimes under lock and key, the new gear was attached to a command center in Moscow, giving officials surprising new powers to block, filter, and slow down websites they didn’t want Russians to visit. See public.

The process, which has been going on since 2019, represents the start of arguably the world’s most ambitious digital censorship effort outside China. Under the leadership of President Vladimir V. Putin, who once called the Internet a “CIA project” and sees the Internet as a threat to its power, the Russian government is trying to get the country’s once open and free Internet back on track. Still working.

Equipment is housed in the equipment rooms of Russia’s largest telecommunications and Internet service providers, including Rostelecom, MTS, Megafon and Vimpelcom, a senior Russian lawmaker announced this year. According to researchers and activists, it affects the vast majority of the more than 120 million wireless and home Internet users in the country.

The world first got a glimpse of Russia’s new tools in action when Twitter slowed to a crawl in the country this spring. Researchers and activists said this was the first time the filter system had been put to work. Other sites have since been blocked, many of which are linked to imprisoned opposition leader Alexei A.

“This is something the world can emulate,” said Laura Cunningham, former head of the State Department’s Internet freedom programs. “The Russian censorship model can be quickly and easily emulated by other authoritarian governments.”

Russian censorship techniques sit between companies that provide Internet access and those who browse the Internet on phones or laptops. Often compared to intercepting mailed letters, software — known as “deep packet inspection” — filters data traveling over Internet networks, slowing down or blocking websites. Removes anything programmed.

The cuts threaten to overturn Russia’s thriving digital life. While the political system clings to Putin’s cult of personality and television channels and newspapers face strict sanctions, the online culture is filled with activism, dark humor and foreign content. Broadly banning the Internet could return the country to a deep form of isolation similar to the Cold War era.

“I was born in the era of a super-free Internet, and now I see it collapsing,” said Ksenia Ermoshina, a researcher from Russia who now works at the French National Center for Scientific Research. She published a paper on censorship techniques in April.

The infrastructure of the censorship was described by 17 Russian telecommunications experts, activists, researchers and academics knowledgeable about the work, many of whom declined to be named for fear of reprisal. Government documents reviewed by The New York Times also outlined some of the technicalities and requirements placed on telecommunications and Internet service providers.

Russia is using censorship techniques to gain greater influence over Western Internet companies, among other powerful tactics and legal intimidation. In September, after the government threatened to arrest local employees for Google and Apple, the companies removed apps from Navalny supporters ahead of a national election.

Roskomnadzor, the country’s internet regulator overseeing the effort, can now move on. It has threatened to shut down YouTube, Facebook and Instagram if they don’t block some of the content themselves. After officials delayed Twitter this year, the company agreed to remove dozens of posts deemed illegal by the government.

Russia’s censorship efforts have met with little resistance. In the United States and Europe, leaders have remained largely silent amid growing mistrust of Silicon Valley, once a champion of an open internet, and efforts to self-regulate the worst internet abuses. Russian officials have pointed to regulation of the tech industry in the West to justify their own actions.

Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration, said: “It’s surprising that this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Biden administration.” He criticized Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter for not speaking out more strongly against Russian policies.

A White House spokesman said the government discussed freedom of expression online with the Russian government and called on the Kremlin to “stop its press campaign to censor critics.”

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