Russian federal lawmakers have just drafted legislation that would ban the publication of online materials that “blatantly disrespect Russian society, the state, official state symbols, the Russian Constitution, and law enforcement agencies.” Such a law would exacerbate the severity of existing laws, which Human Rights Watch has said already “sought to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, or even traitorous” and crack down on physical mechanisms of protest like public assembly.

At the same time as that new legislation, Russia’s internet “regulator,” Roskomnadzor, has proposed a law that would permit the agency to entirely block search engines that don’t comply with requests of state authorities. Russia’s federal policies toward search engines have already been in the headlines: the government just fined Google 500,000 rubles (about $7,500 USD) for refusing to remove certain entries from its search results. In fact, Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations says the new Roskomnadzor proposal stems from the dispute with Google, as the agency aims to harden existing punishments.

Yet this dispute with Google, while perhaps eye-catching, is only a small piece of a larger puzzle—Russia’s tightening control of cyberspace within its borders, and its mission to export that model of a sovereign and controlled internet to the rest of the world.

Russian Internet: Already Not Free 

Even without these recent legal proposals, Russia’s internet is already tightly controlled. This became quite clear when my colleagues and I mapped 193 countries based on their existing internet regulations and cybersecurity policies. We categorized the world into three camps: supporters of a global and open internet; supporters of a sovereign and controlled internet; and a group of “Digital Deciders” who have yet to make key decisions on such practices as internet censorship.

Within this report, we generated a variety of benchmarks for how countries engage with governing the internet in their borders. One gauge is a country’s Internet Values Score. On one end of the internet governance spectrum, a score of 0.0 signifies a sovereign and controlled vision for the internet within that country’s borders; at the other end, a score of 1.0 signifies a global and open vision. Russia scored 0.38, tied for the world’s sixteenth most sovereign and controlled internet in our mapping.

In Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report, it spoke of the “Kremlin’s intrusive gaze,” cataloguing systematic policy measures enacted during the course of 2017 to bolster the state’s “data sovereignty”—control of the 1s and 0s that flow and are stored within Russia’s borders. Unsurprisingly, the country was once again marked as “not free” online. This was the same result as in the 2017 Freedom on the Net report and in the 2016 Freedom on the Net report.

Of course, it doesn’t make sense to isolate Russia’s treatment of the internet from its general governing principles (e.g., regularly suppressing regime speech) and general treatment of media (e.g., tightly controlling them). In 2017, Freedom House documented how “the government or oligarchs [in Russia] with strong links to the ruling party have purchased numerous online outlets, dismissed critical journalists, and quickly altered the sites’ editorial stance.” That same year, The Guardian ran a long article explaining how the Russian government did not just bolster its censorship in 2017, but “has spent years consolidating its control of the media.” And at the end of 2017, Alina Polyakova wrote in Foreign Affairs to explain Russia’s November 2017 law to “designate media organizations that receive funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents.’”

In many ways, the Russian state views the internet much like other communication mechanisms that have developed over the past several centuries: it provides access to undesirable information, enables destabilizing coalition-building, and provides a forum to share anti-regime speech. So, somewhat akin to television or newspapers, the Russian government approaches the internet as an inherent threat to state security that must be tightly controlled.

As Robert Morgus and I wrote in our paper, The Idealized Internet vs. Internet Realities, “Russian treatment of the internet ties in visibly with its other economic, social, and political goals.”

A Short Timeline of Russian Internet Manipulation 

These recently proposed laws are only the latest in Russia’s long history of controlling the internet. “As early as 2011,” my colleagues and I previously wrote, “governments in Russia, China, and a group of allies sought to legitimize a consolidation of sovereign control over the internet through international institutions.” This has been paralleled with domestic actions of the same flavor:

  • July 2012: The government can blacklist websites to be shut down or banned by Internet Service Providers.
  • December 2013: The government can block online sources, within 24 hours and without a court order, that call for public demonstrations.
  • July 2014: Internet sites with data on Russian citizens must store it within the country.
  • July 2016: Telecommunications firms and some internet companies must store communications for six months after creation.
  • July 2017: Virtual Private Networks are banned.
  • April 2018: The encrypted messaging app Telegram is banned.
  • June 2018: Legislation is proposed in parliament to fine search engines linking to banned sites, VPNs, or anonymization tools.

This list is not comprehensive, but the trend is clear: Russia has taken strong steps over the last decade to tighten its control and bolster its manipulation of the internet in its borders.

International Context

The recent legal proposals matter not just for civil liberties and human rights in Russia. They also matter because the Russian government is increasingly projecting its influence via international norm-setting on cyberspace issues—including, especially of late, internet governance—as part of rising great-power conflict, by which Russia has leveraged cyber capabilities (and, soon, other technologies like artificial intelligence) for disproportionate advantage on the global stage.

“Governments around the world are tightening control over citizens’ data,” Freedom House wrote in its 2018 Freedom on the Net report, “and using claims of ‘fake news’ to suppress dissent, eroding trust in the internet as well as the foundations of democracy.” Freedom House called this the spread of “digital authoritarianism,” which is of increasing concern as authoritarian countries push these norms of tight internet control and social manipulation through international norm proposals and the export of surveillance technologies.

This is why Russia’s growing cyber sovereignty is so concerning. Russia is potentially influential in spreading digital authoritarianism. Furthermore, in a dark cycle, the more it does to provide a viable model for other countries, the more influential it becomes.

My colleagues and I charted this influence via the International Influence Score in our Digital Deciders index. It rates states based on how influential they are internationally and regionally on all political and policy issues. On this point, we scored Russia at 0.81, second in the sovereign and controlled camp only to China at 0.89—signifying Russia’s importance in setting global norms. Relatedly, we scored Russia at 0.67 for its International Internet Policy Participation Score. While this isn’t an alarmingly high number (Belarus, Turkey, India, Greece, Qatar, Mexico, Singapore, Japan, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the U.K., among others, are more involved), Russia’s participation in international processes and dialogues related to the internet is quickly growing.

This was underscored just a few weeks ago, when Russia successfully passed a cybercrime resolution in the United Nations that further pushed norms of internet censorship, surveillance, and traffic throttling (slowing access or raising costs to access certain sites) under the smokescreen of the authoritarian “protecting citizens from internet harms” rhetoric. In the debate over this proposal, many influential countries voted in Russia’s favor, including Brazil, India, Mongolia, Singapore, Nigeria, Botswana, Serbia, and Jamaica. Of the 50 Digital Deciders in the global internet debate, in fact, 25 voted with Russia. And this was not the only proposal Russia has backed of late.

Authoritarian countries, broadly speaking, are using domestic policies and international norm-setting to influence the global battle for the internet. This is coupled with, among other practices,  foreign direct investment, the export of surveillance technologies via defense agreements, the export and/or diffusion of surveillance technology via private corporations, investments in global internet infrastructure, educating and even training foreign entities on surveillance technology, proclaiming the internet’s insecurity, and undermining trust in it.

There are many motives at play here for Russia, but in tightening its control of cyberspace within its borders, it is certainly contributing to norms perpetuating a sovereign and controlled internet. So, in defending the global and open internet as we know it—that is, preserving our very concept of cyberspace itself—we must recognize the importance not just of international agreements but of domestic policies in authoritarian countries as well.

IMAGE: Participants attend an opposition rally in central Moscow on May 13, 2018, to demand internet freedom in Russia. (Photo by MAXIM ZMEYEV/AFP/Getty Images)