Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, March 12, 2019 --
The internet exposes Russia to dangerous ideas. The regime has a plan to fight the threat.
As the menacing threat of American cyberattacks looms over Russia, protesters are filling the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The protesters are angry not about the threat, but about a sovereign internet bill in the Russian parliament, which the government says is meant to combat the threat, but skeptics say is simply a tool to insulate the regime from online dissent.1
Yet government claims of an American cyber threat are not as far-fetched as they might sound. What terrifies the Putin regime is not the kind of cyberattack launched by hackers associated with an American spy agency. It's the kind of "attack" that originates from open-society advocates and Western government diplomats that spread anti-Russian information (much of it true) at times of social unrest. It is precisely this kind of "attack" that fueled the revolution that toppled the the pro-Russian government in Ukraine in February 2014.
During the Ukrainian revolution, anti-government protesters occupying the main square in Kiev used Facebook and other social networks to spread information and coordinate activities against riot police backed by the regime. These social media services were often run on servers in the United States owned by Silicon Valley companies.
In the 22 years between the fall of the Soviet Union and the 2014 revolution, internet infrastructure in Ukraine had been largely ignored by technologically backward governments. It grew organically, fueled by demand from younger generations, with strong links to the telecommunication infrastructure of the West. When the revolution came, there was simply no way for the government to stop it.
The Russian government is hyper-aware of this risk.
Even before the fall of Ukraine to the West, similar protests had briefly threatened Putin's hold on power in the run-up to presidential elections in 2012. In that case as well, American-based social networks including Facebook were used to organize protests against rigged elections across Russia. Except unlike in Ukraine, the Russian regime was saved by a low-tech, heavy-handed response of riot police. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was arrested and jailed, and a few years later assassinated on a Moscow bridge. Old-fashioned repression worked to land Putin a new term.
By the time the next Russian presidential approached came around, Putin was plenty spooked by the Ukraine experience. In the months before this election, social media had again helped a new opposition leader, Alexei Navalny rise to fame, this time using home grown Russian social media networks VK and Telegram Messenger.2 A few months prior to the election, the Russian government demanded that Telegram deliver encryption keys so they could listen in on chats. When Telegram did not comply, the government began ham-fistedly blocking IP addresses used by Telegram servers (many of them hosted by American companies), taking out much of the Russian internet along the way.3
Russia's new proposed law would force all internet service providers to use only a limited number of approved internet access points to the outside world4, giving the government a kill switch it could use to shut down access in the event of mass protests or a close election. Authoritarian regimes in places like the Congo and Ethiopia have long used the same technique —although it is harder to pull off in Russia because it is much larger and has a much more sophisticated internet infrastructure.
The law would also create a domestically-controlled Domain Name System instead of relying on Western systems, allowing Russia to much more easily blacklist websites that threaten the Putin regime.5
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Russia's new internet censorship plan is that it is so late in coming. It's been five years since the revolution in Ukraine. Why only now?
As the protests show, internet freedom is highly popular amongst younger Russians — the very people who are most likely to engage in protests against the regime. In the past, internet freedom was a bone thrown at younger Russians to placate them while older Russians continued watch Kremlin-controlled television channels then dutifully re-elect Putin one election after the next.
But those television watching Russian masses are slowly dying off, being replaced by YouTube watching countrymen. By the time the next presidential election comes around in 2026, internet media will be the dominant vehicle for Russian political information.
That's why its critical to the government to prepare now. By the time 2026 approaches, the regime must be protected from American cyberattacks like truth, free expression, and a plurality of ideas.
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3. Reuters, Russia Tries More Precise Technology to Block Telegram Messenger, August 30, 2018
4. ZDNet, Ibid.