Russian Internet: the Gov. vs the People?

Oct 29 2015

Twenty-five years have passed since the internet began uniting the world in a single network.  We began to live in an era of information and communication. For those of us who were born and grew up with the net, it was a fantastic opportunity to communicate with each other, to get instant access to any information or knowledge, to live in a free world without borders.

Today’s world is becoming something we used to read about in science fiction- a fully-fledged cyberspace.

Despite the invention of the internet, those linked with military companies and the state, likely sponsors and potential beneficiaries, have continued to lag behind progress, and the net, even despite its global growth, still belonged to the inventors. In effect, the main conflict of interests lies in the freedom of transmission and distribution of information: some (i.e. the state), think that information needs to be controlled, others (i.e. the inventors), understand that the net is built in such a way that renders total technical control impossible.

Years of existence in a communal space has not only changed our habits, but it has also opened up possibilities. The speed of the spread of messages, such as the news, is astonishing. The speed of the organization of events, where the number of those ‘attending’ doubles every hour, clearly demonstrates this process. We have started to communicate personally more:  the number of horizontal links that are represented online today through our devices have been increased significantly since last 20 years.

Web 2.0 and social networks present a great opportunity for some (i.e. us). For others, the net has become a threat. If we remove the typical set of cyber-crimes, then freedom of access to information and freedom of communication will remain a major threat.

How this works in Russia: the government department RosKomnnadzor, independently or at the request of other government departments, adds sites to the register of banned websites: a list of sites which all internet providers are obliged to block. RosKomnnadzor itself rarely really blocks sites. And if you want to get on any of the sites on this register, then it is likely you will see the message: “This resource is blocked by the state authorities”. However it’s possible you won’t see it and the site will work. Immediately you will see links to applications which will rid you of the message and any restrictions on the network. RosKomnnadzor is a department which, on its own behalf or at the request of others, goes through the net and seeks to delete or change information which it believes violates legislation.

This is usually the case when it comes to suicide (in Russia this is a difficult topic due to a large increase in suicide rates) and drugs (for some reason the Federal Drug Control Service focusses its energies on marijuana on the internet, and not on the street).  But the most striking and, unfortunately, now the most numerous are political blocks and bans: from song lyrics to political figures’ last words in court (Alexei Navalny’s speech at one of his trials was blocked at the request of the Prosecutor General).

The main mistake of the conservative-minded state representatives is thinking that all of this somehow helps. These tasks designed to control don’t solve the problem, because the environment changes in such a way that this control becomes meaningless. These laws are simply all harmful: investment is becoming less appealing, the market is becoming impoverished, the population is getting angry, and alternative means of communication are growing.

Today in Russia there are two internets: one that the government wants to build itself, and another, ours- a shared internet. The attempt to control the net in such an original way honestly seemed a worthy but pointless task. The net is constructed in such a way that it is technically impossible to control anything.

A couple of years ago I wondered about the possibility of blocking Facebook or Wikipedia or some other infrastructural resource. And all these years, in spite of all the madness of the legislative and executive authorities, I still reply: no, it isn’t possible. Because at today’s usage levels, there is scope everywhere. Such a block causes irreparable damage to its creators. For users, the potential is there but technically it goes unnoticed. As discussed above, blocks are merely a formality.

Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter are all in the top 50 most popular sites in Russia. Not only is Alexei Navalny on Facebook, but Dmitry Medvedev is too. Not only does Charas have a Wikipedia entry, but the giant panda Mei Xiang does too. It’s not just Anonymous International who have a Twitter account (which internet users with a Russian IP address can’t see), but also the press secretary of the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin. The media, government departments, as well as small and large businesses are on all these services.

Today Facebook or Twitter is not only a way to post a funny picture, but also a way of communicating. Lots of people use Facebook Messenger for work, and many use Wikipedia for their studies, and so on and so forth. When any of these services goes down, everything stops: life, work, studies.

And do you really believe that people in the government  are that crazy (of course, after the annexation of Crimea and the adoption of all these brutal laws everything is believable – but we are in the internet)?

The era of social networks is giving way to the era of real-time chats. We are beginning to communicate right here and right now, to come together in big or small groups, to communicate anonymously and safely with each other. Thanks to FireChat – we can do this even without the net. This is further confirmation that the internet has proved its right to freedom.

by Anton Merkurov

Today’s world is becoming something we used to read about in science fiction- a fully-fledged cyberspace.

Despite the invention of the internet, those linked with military companies and the state, likely sponsors and potential beneficiaries, have continued to lag behind progress, and the net, even despite its global growth, still belonged to the inventors. In effect, the main conflict of interests lies in the freedom of transmission and distribution of information: some (i.e. the state), think that information needs to be controlled, others (i.e. the inventors), understand that the net is built in such a way that renders total technical control impossible.

Years of existence in a communal space has not only changed our habits, but it has also opened up possibilities. The speed of the spread of messages, such as the news, is astonishing. The speed of the organization of events, where the number of those ‘attending’ doubles every hour, clearly demonstrates this process. We have started to communicate personally more:  the number of horizontal links that are represented online today through our devices have been increased significantly since last 20 years.

Web 2.0 and social networks present a great opportunity for some (i.e. us). For others, the net has become a threat. If we remove the typical set of cyber-crimes, then freedom of access to information and freedom of communication will remain a major threat.

How this works in Russia: the government department RosKomnnadzor, independently or at the request of other government departments, adds sites to the register of banned websites: a list of sites which all internet providers are obliged to block. RosKomnnadzor itself rarely really blocks sites. And if you want to get on any of the sites on this register, then it is likely you will see the message: “This resource is blocked by the state authorities”. However it’s possible you won’t see it and the site will work. Immediately you will see links to applications which will rid you of the message and any restrictions on the network. RosKomnnadzor is a department which, on its own behalf or at the request of others, goes through the net and seeks to delete or change information which it believes violates legislation.

This is usually the case when it comes to suicide (in Russia this is a difficult topic due to a large increase in suicide rates) and drugs (for some reason the Federal Drug Control Service focusses its energies on marijuana on the internet, and not on the street).  But the most striking and, unfortunately, now the most numerous are political blocks and bans: from song lyrics to political figures’ last words in court (Alexei Navalny’s speech at one of his trials was blocked at the request of the Prosecutor General).

The main mistake of the conservative-minded state representatives is thinking that all of this somehow helps. These tasks designed to control don’t solve the problem, because the environment changes in such a way that this control becomes meaningless. These laws are simply all harmful: investment is becoming less appealing, the market is becoming impoverished, the population is getting angry, and alternative means of communication are growing.

Today in Russia there are two internets: one that the government wants to build itself, and another, ours- a shared internet. The attempt to control the net in such an original way honestly seemed a worthy but pointless task. The net is constructed in such a way that it is technically impossible to control anything.

A couple of years ago I wondered about the possibility of blocking Facebook or Wikipedia or some other infrastructural resource. And all these years, in spite of all the madness of the legislative and executive authorities, I still reply: no, it isn’t possible. Because at today’s usage levels, there is scope everywhere. Such a block causes irreparable damage to its creators. For users, the potential is there but technically it goes unnoticed. As discussed above, blocks are merely a formality.

Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter are all in the top 50 most popular sites in Russia. Not only is Alexei Navalny on Facebook, but Dmitry Medvedev is too. Not only does Charas have a Wikipedia entry, but the giant panda Mei Xiang does too. It’s not just Anonymous International who have a Twitter account (which internet users with a Russian IP address can’t see), but also the press secretary of the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin. The media, government departments, as well as small and large businesses are on all these services.

Today Facebook or Twitter is not only a way to post a funny picture, but also a way of communicating. Lots of people use Facebook Messenger for work, and many use Wikipedia for their studies, and so on and so forth. When any of these services goes down, everything stops: life, work, studies.

And do you really believe that people in the government  are that crazy (of course, after the annexation of Crimea and the adoption of all these brutal laws everything is believable – but we are in the internet)?

The era of social networks is giving way to the era of real-time chats. We are beginning to communicate right here and right now, to come together in big or small groups, to communicate anonymously and safely with each other. Thanks to FireChat – we can do this even without the net. This is further confirmation that the internet has proved its right to freedom.

by Anton Merkurov

Call for Submissions – The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly vol. 3

Oct 26 2020

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlins Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.

Free Russia Foundation’s Press Release on Submission of Article 15 Communication to the International Criminal Court

Oct 06 2020

On 21 September 2020, the Free Russia Foundation submitted a Communication to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Office (in The Hague, Netherlands) seeking accountability for Crimean and Russian authorities concerning international crimes perpetrated during Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. The Communication was prepared in cooperation with Global Rights Compliance and Center for Civil Liberties and is based on a focused inquiry conducted over the past year. In our inquiry, we documented crimes as part of a systematic, planned attack by the Russian state against civilians and groups in Crimea in order to discourage them from opposing the illegal occupation of Crimea and to force their departure from the peninsula. Crimes against civilians included unlawful arrests, beatings, torture, enforced disappearances, and other inhumane acts causing severe mental and/or physical pain. In particular, the crimes targeted the Crimean Tatars, a native ethnic group who had only recently returned to their homeland, having previously been forcefully and brutally displaced by the Soviet Union in 1944.

One of the principal coercive acts was the illegal detention and concomitant violence before, during, and after the imprisonment of political prisoners. Most of those detained were arrested by Russian and Crimean authorities on terrorism charges, but it was their legal, pro-Ukrainian advocacy that led to their imprisonment. In addition, trials of those arbitrarily detained were conducted in wholesale disregard of their fair trial rights. For example, some of those illegally imprisoned were denied a speedy trial, access to independent lawyers, and the opportunity to defend themselves against their arrest in a courtroom.

In order to force those illegally detained to confess to crimes they did not commit, Russian and Crimean authorities also perpetrated acts of torture and cruel or degrading treatment, the levying of additional charges against them, even more inhumane prison conditions, denial of communications with their families and threats made against them, enforced disappearances, and even, in at least one case, a mock execution.

Other inhumane acts include “punitive psychiatry” and the denial of adequate prison conditions, including the following: (i) feeding people inedible food or, at times, no food at all; (ii) facing severe overcrowding in prisons; (iii) denial of regular water supply; (iv) threats of assault against them by prison cellmates; and (v) adding pork to food – prohibited for observant Muslims. Further, medical attention was systematically inadequate or denied for many individuals.

Concerning acts of torture, it was perpetrated by different Russian authorities, including the FSB. Allegations include the use of electric shocks in an effort to get an accused to confess. One was beaten in the head, kidneys, arms and legs with an iron pipe. With another, fingers were broken. Still another endured spinal bruises and having a plastic bag placed over his head to the point of unconsciousness. Further, threats of sexual violence against a detained man were made. Murder as well. Hands were broken, teeth were knocked out in still another.

Trials were largely held behind closed doors for illegitimate reasons, and many of the witnesses were secret not only to the public but also to the Accused. Further, credible allegations exist that, at times, there were FSB or other agents in the room, silently instructing witnesses what to say and how the judges should rule. This adds credence to words, according to the Kyiv Post, heard by Arsen Dzhepparov from a senior FSB lieutenant who stated “I will prove by all possible – and impossible – means that [an Accused is] guilty – even if he isn’t guilty”.

Concerning the crime of persecution, nearly all of these deprivations of fundamental rights were carried out with discriminatory intent. Specifically, these groups were targeted due to their political view – namely, by peacefully opposing the illegal occupation of their country. Some were targeted on ethnic grounds or religious grounds on the basis of their Crimean Tatar background.

War crimes, another group of crimes punished at the ICC, were also perpetrated in addition to or in the alternative to the crimes against humanity. This includes the crime of torture, outrages against personal dignity, unlawful confinement, wilfully depriving protected persons of the rights of a fair and regular trial, and the transfer of the occupying power of parts of its population into the territory it occupies or the deportation of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory.

All these crimes had the ultimate objective of the criminal enterprise – the removal of pro-Ukrainian elements out of Crimea and the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation without opposition, including the installation of pro-Russian elements, which include the emigration of more than 70,000 Russians, the illegal imposition of Russian law in the occupied territory, forcing Russian nationality on many Crimeans, and the appropriation of public property.

Ultimately, we hope that all the information gathered by the ICC in the context of its preliminary investigation will lead the ICC to investigate mid- to high-level Russian and Crimean officials on this basis. The international community expects responsible global leadership that follows the rule of law and expects it – no matter the situation – to be respected, especially from a state that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. When this fails to happen, the international community must demand accountability. We hope that an investigation can be opened and responsible officials of the Russian Federation will be investigated. After an investigation that conforms to international best practices, responsible persons should be charged with the systematic perpetration of international crimes.

Novichok Use Implicates Putin’s Government in Navalny’s Poisoning

Sep 02 2020

Today, the German government has announced that Russian pro-democracy leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned by Novichok. Novichok is a deadly nerve agent developed by the Soviet government chemical weapons program and used on several occasions by the Russian government to kill its critics in the recent years.

To restate the obvious, Novichok is a poison that can only be accessed with the authority of the Kremlin. Therefore, today’s announcement by German officials  directly implicates the Kremlin and Putin in the high-profile assassination attempt on Navalny.

The choice of Novichok was not just a means  to silence Mr. Navalny, but a loud, brazen and menacing message sent by Putin to the world: dare to criticize me, and you may lose your life.

The announcement by the German government of its intent to formally notify the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (‘OPCW’) of the use of Novichok against Navalny is a meek bureaucratic half-measure that fails to acknowledge the extraordinary threat to human life posed by Putin’s regime everywhere. Taken together with Angela Merkel’s promise earlier this week to help Putin finish his Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite an international outcry amounts to condoning the poisoning and normalizing it into a new modus operandi where Putin’s murders go unpunished. Free Russia Foundation urges the leaders of the EU, its Member States and the U.S. Government to take an urgent and drastic action to punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime not only to serve justice, but to establish a powerful deterrent against new attacks by Putin’s regime globally.

Free Russia Foundation Statement on Kremlin’s Interference in Elections in Georgia

Aug 26 2020

We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.

More

Free Russia Foundation Calls for Investigation into Alexey Navalny’s Poisoning

Aug 20 2020

Free Russia Foundation is gravely concerned about the life and safety of Alexey Navalny. More