Isolating, Not Taming: What’s Behind the Impetus to “Digital Sovereignty” in Russia?

Julien Nocetti, a Research Fellow at the Paris-based think tank French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), explores recent Russian claims and policies concerning the internet in an attempt to reveal what these claims and initiatives reveal about Russian authorities’ stance towards the internet.

April 2014 was a particularly bitter month for Russian internet users and the local internet industry. President Vladimir Putin unsurprisingly made headlines when, at the Media Forum in St. Petersburg, he publicly labeled the internet as a “CIA project” and launched an attack against Russian internet businesses. Putin particularly expressed reservations about the successful Russian search engine Yandex, as it is registered in the Netherlands for, as Putin stated, “not only… taxation purposes but for other reasons, as well.” A week earlier, during his annual call-in TV show, Putin also referenced the internet when, responding to a question from Edward Snowden, he rejected any mass surveillance of the network by Russian law enforcement agencies.

Simultaneously, an avalanche of internet related legislation, which would make any legal expert dizzy, passed in Russia. The State Duma approved a law which imposed stricter rules on bloggers, requiring blogs with over 3000 daily visits to register as mass media entities.  The Duma also released a draft “Internet Law” that would significantly increase the government’s powers by obliging all email providers and social network owners to store information about their users, users’ posts, and users’ communications on servers in Russia. In an apparent quest for “norms dominance,” the upper house of the parliament did not remain silent: one senator pushed for creating a national operating system to help distance Russia’s internet from the global network. The presidential administration also set up a working group that will soon suggest measures such as forcing ISPs to use DNS servers located inside Russia – thus making it possible to disrupt the way internet users access websites.

Beyond immediate reactions, what do these claims and initiatives reveal about Russian authorities’ stance towards the internet?

First, they cannot be separated from Russia’s worsening relations with the West over the crisis in Ukraine. In a world in which controlling the narrative appears as crucial as the number of tanks an army can line up, Moscow’s policymakers unambiguously see the internet through a threat-oriented lens. The Kremlin has gradually become excessively suspicious toward the  internet, which it sees as politically disruptive because it enables citizens to circumvent government-controlled media – most importantly television. The assumption that digital technologies are used by the West to topple regimes in countries where the opposition is too weak to mobilize protests has come to define the Kremlin’s approach to the internet. It is clear that Russia has deep concerns regarding the principle of uncontrolled exchange of information in cyberspace. Content as threat informs the Russian perception that digital technologies can be used as tools against Russia. The notion of content as threat is reinforced by projection onto foreign partners and Russia’s own preconceptions of how international relations work, as well as by the presumption that a primary aim of Western powers is to disrupt and undermine Russia.

These claims and initiatives also inform Putin’s own conception of the internet, which may also be typical for people of both his generation and professional background. As an experienced “media choreographer,” Putin knew his recent public comments in St. Petersburg would draw Western media attention. This demonstrates that the president is no longer as wary about Russia’s international image – a distinct change from the Sochi Olympics three months ago. In an international context marked by strenuous information campaigns over the events in Ukraine, added to what Putin perceives as the decline of a “morally decadent” West (which would use the internet to pervert Russian society and culture)and Edward Snowden’s leaks on the U.S. large-scale surveillance programs, Putin has seriously come to consider the foreign policy of the internet as the establishment of a new US-led hegemonic framework.

The Russian government paid little attention to online content during the first decade of the 21st century. It regarded the internet as a niche market and instead focused on controlling the “information space” in relation to terrestrial television stations. This allowed the internet to thrive, creating an enabling environment in Russia for  national companies and digital technologies to flourish and facilitating the creation of an alternative online public sphere. This is now over. The rising internet industry is no longer a priority to the Russian economy. Its promises are increasingly captured by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, as has been the case recently with media outlets such as Gazeta.ru, Lenta.ru, and Dozhd TV. More symbolically, the founder and CEO of the country’s largest social network, Vkontakte, was forced to emigrate after he the Kremlin began to view him as an uncontrollable libertarian.

Finally, recent internet policy activity demonstrates updates to the “russianization” of the Russian segment of the internet, a policy trend and narrative which tends to fade then reappear in cycles. Essentially, there is nothing new in the recent proposals –restricting the global nature of the internet in Russia has been in the pipes even during tech-savvy-Medvedev’s years as president. The Kremlin, unsurprisingly used Snowden’s revelations to promote its “digital (or information) sovereignty” and to bring global web platforms under Russian jurisdiction – either requiring them to be accessible in Russia by the domain extension .ru or obliging them to be hosted in Russian territory. The Kremlin has also, more or less, seriously backed a plethora of initiatives to promote national networking and search technologies, set up a secure e-mail service, encouraged internet traffic to be routed locally, and created a national electronic payment system. This approach cannot be separated from the inherently authoritarian nature of the Russian regime,  which has perpetuated a century-long tradition of muzzling dissenting voices regardless of the medium.

Is Russia’s internet policy doomed to fail? It might well prove unsustainable so long as authorities do not understand how crucial the internet industry is for modernizing the Russian economy. The hardline sovereigntist approach prevailing in the Kremlin will likely further complicate foreign internet companies’ operations in Russia, as well as have tremendous financial costs if the Kremlin’s internet balkanizing projects are undertaken. What is certain is that the policy decisions made in the next few years will prove crucial to the future of internet development and freedom in Russia.

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Julien Nocetti is a Research Fellow at the Paris-based think tank French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), where he researches on Russia’s Internet and global internet governance. He tweets at @JulienNocetti

 

Featured Photo Credit: Dmitry Rozhkov,Creative Commons Licensing

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