Russian Internet: the Gov. vs the People?

Oct 29 2015

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

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