Why Russia Might Shut Off the Internet

The Kremlin’s Long Obsession With Central Control

During a rally to protest against tightening state control over the Internet in Moscow, Russia March 2019. Shamil Zhumatov / REUTERS

On the morning of Sunday March 10, thousands of people gathered in the center of Moscow to protest proposed new legislation cracking down on Internet freedom. They waved placards saying “Save the Internet, Save Russia,” “Isolation—It’s Death,” and “NO to Digital Enslaving.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who was watching the protests on his TV, was unpleasantly surprised. “One of the speakers at the rally claimed that the Kremlin wanted to press a button and switch the Internet off,” he told the Russian wire agency Interfax. “It is absolutely wrong! Why aren’t they concerned that somebody on the other side of the Atlantic will press this button?” 

Peskov was echoing official propaganda, which claims that the new legislation is essential to stop the United States from cutting Russia off from the Internet. But the protesters have good reason to believe that it is the Kremlin, not some Western conspiracy, that is endangering their Internet access.

In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it a crime to publish “fake news” or “disrespect of the authorities” on social media. Another proposed bill on “digital sovereignty” aims to provide the Kremlin with the ability to cut off Russia, or a particular Russian region, from the global Internet. The two bills deal with different things—content and infrastructure—but they both have the same goal, one that Putin has wanted to achieve for two decades: depriving the people of the means to start a revolution.

In 1991, Putin and his comrades from the KGB were traumatized by the unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union. They didn’t want any more surprises. As early as 1999, Putin proclaimed that his goal was political stability—the preservation of the regime. Putin’s advisers suggested a simple solution to the threat of revolution: controlling the means by which they thought people organized. During Putin’s first term, the government brought trade unions, opposition parties, and independent TV channels to heel. But when, in the early 2000s,

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