Thanks to a new Russian government program, the privacy and security of those who use the world’s most popular online platforms—including Facebook, Google, and Twitter—are at risk. The companies involved have yet to say how they plan to respond. They should speak up now.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long sought to control the Internet in Russia. Spooked by the Arab Spring and street protests in Moscow in 2011–12, both organized through Twitter and Facebook, Putin has tried everything from filtering the Internet at the nationwide level to introducing blacklists of websites and deploying cutting-edge online surveillance technologies. In the spring of this year, Russian officials even ran a simulation in which they cut off the country from the global Internet during a political crisis. Like other initiatives before it, though, the attempt failed. The big national operators duly complied with a government request to cut off traffic, but small Internet service providers kept transferring data to the networks outside.
Most recently, the Kremlin has settled on a strategy that involves legal sallies against international digital companies—including Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
The effort began a year ago. In July 2014, Moscow adopted a law that prohibits the storage of Russian citizens’ personal data anywhere but on Russian soil. The law was set to come into force in September 2015. As justification, Russian parliamentarians pointed to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the United States’ mass surveillance program. The new legislation, they said, would protect the Russian people from spying by the U.S. National Security Agency.
In reality, the law had nothing to do with data protection. The real goal was to make international technology companies subject to Russian communications law, under which all Internet service providers and network hosts in the country must provide the Russian security services with direct and unrestricted access to their servers. In Russia, the security services can intercept any communications they like, from the biggest email service Mail.ru to the social network Vkontakte.