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In 2011 and 2012, the turmoil of the Arab Spring and protests in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency awoke the Kremlin to the political challenges of the Internet. Over the years since, Russian authorities have responded to online political activity with a relatively traditional set of moves. The Kremlin has introduced heavy censorship on new media outlets and Internet users, pressured domestic communications service and content providers to filter censored content and install a new version of Russia’s national online surveillance system, and threatened to block the services of international firms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter unless they complied with the Kremlin’s demands. It has surveilled members of the opposition and civic activists; in order to spread fear and encourage self-censorship, it has sent some dissidents, such as the Tatar activist Rafis Kashapov, to jail for criticizing the government online. In short, the government has bombarded Russian society with restrictions meant to curtail expression on the Internet; one recently proposed rule would fine Russian citizens who advocate the use of circumvention tools such as the anonymous browser Tor, which allow users to access censored material, for the offense of disseminating propaganda. (Because the Kremlin believes in the political power of television, Russians have also lost access to a number of foreign broadcasters, including the BBC, Bloomberg, CNN, and MSNBC.)
It is hardly surprising that many of the tools the Kremlin has used to restrict online expression—surveillance, censorship, and intimidation—were first used by Moscow during the Soviet era. More surprising is the fact that the international community has responded to these restrictions with a strategy that is equally dated: namely, by improving the services that help activists besieged by the authorities to evade surveillance and circumvent censorship. Indeed, tools such as email encryption and protected chat services recall the portable radio sets developed by the Allied countries for use by resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Europe. Then, as now, the goal is not to open up the Internet at large; rather, it is to provide the means for a small number of technologically savvy and politically active users to pursue their work without state interference.
The problem is that most Russians aren’t exposed to the Web’s international dimensions.
Consider the Tor network, which allows users to anonymously browse and communicate online and has some 220,000 daily users in Russia. Its underlying technologies were developed in the 1990s by the United States Naval Research Laboratory with the aim of providing a safe, unobservable method of communication to American spies. Or take Psiphon, another popular censorship circumvention service. It was developed by a small team outside of Toronto and was later chosen by the United States’ Broadcasting Board of Governors as a primary tool to help users access sites deployed by BBG broadcasters in countries with Internet censorship. The same agency that once set up transmitters in Europe to overcome the Soviet Union’s attempts to jam shortwave radio broadcasts sent out by Voice of America, in other words, is now using Psiphon to help foreigners jump the online firewalls that block access to VoA’s website. (The BBC uses the service for similar purposes.)
Such strategies would make sense if the Internet were merely a new version of the older communication channels that dissidents have historically used. But the Internet is much bigger than that: as the writer Emily Parker has noted, it is also a widely used tool used by “ordinary citizens [to] overcome the challenges of isolation, fear, and apathy.”
In this light, today’s approach to countering Internet censorship betrays a lack of ambition. Tools such as Tor and Psiphon hardly help most “ordinary citizens” overcome the challenges that Parker has described. Indeed, advancing the digital security of a few thousand activists is not an adequate strategy in a country such as Russia, where there are some 87 million Internet users. Soviet totalitarianism didn’t collapse because dissidents managed to access secure means of communication; it collapsed because ordinary people suddenly felt the urge to be part of the wider world.
The Internet is perhaps the best embodiment so far of a global community, so in today’s Russia, it offers enormous opportunities for political engagement and awareness among ordinary citizens. The problem is that most Russians aren’t exposed to the Web’s international dimensions. From the Russia-based social network VK to the search engine Yandex and the email and news website mail.ru, most citizens of the country, the Westernized intelligentsia excepted, consume a localized version of the Internet.
Language barriers are a particularly troubling impediment to wider access. Many Russian Web users interested in foreign news coverage rely on the aggregator and translator inosmi.ru—but that site is itself part of the Kremlin’s propaganda empire. International nonfiction and documentaries remain largely unknown to Russian Internet users: Amediateka, the largest online provider of streaming movies and TV series in Russia, including foreign content translated into Russian, has only 50,000 subscribers. (Netflix arrived in Russia in January 2016, but a large portion of its content has not been dubbed or subtitled in Russian.)
The commercial choices of content providers—from copyright limitations to the obsession of some global companies with offering localized versions of their services—exacerbate the problem. Russians cannot watch the BBC’s new adaptation of War and Peace online, for example; like much of its other video content, the BBC has not made the show available to viewers in Russia.
It is time to show Russian Internet users what they are missing. To begin with, more English-language media outlets should launch Russian-language versions of their websites. The Guardian has taken a strong first step in this direction; some of the articles in its “New East” section, which covers Russia and the former Soviet Union, are available in Russian and are widely read in the country. That said, Russians already have plenty of online services that translate foreign stories about their country: what is really needed is a broad selection of translated news about the wider world. Although Russia’s economic climate is not terribly promising for new media ventures at the moment, the potential gains in terms of the spread of ideas are enormous.
Online translation technology should be further improved and disseminated by technological giants such as Google to help users follow and engage with foreign-language media—an option that is now used largely by the urban intelligentsia and pro-Kremlin trolls, not by average citizens. Finally, media outlets should relax the copyright restrictions that make some content inaccessible in certain countries, perhaps by introducing a greater variety of paid, optional services. To maximize its political potential, digital content should not be constrained by national borders.