Reading the World

The Internet and Political Change in Russia

A computer lab at a school in Vladivostok, September 2010. Yuri Maltsev / REUTERS


Read the Russian version.

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

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