Thursday, April 25

Russia tightens internet controls in critical year for Putin

Russia is ramping up its internet censorship ahead of this weekend’s elections that are expected to give President Vladimir V. Putin six more years in power, further shrinking one of the last remaining spaces for political activism, l independent information and freedom of expression.

Russian authorities have stepped up a crackdown on digital tools used to circumvent internet blocks, limited access to WhatsApp and other communications apps in specific areas during protests and expanded a program to shut down sites Web and online services, according to civil society groups and investigators. and the businesses that have been affected.

Russia, they say, is turning to techniques that go beyond its established practices of hacking and digital surveillance, taking a more systemic approach to changing the way its domestic Internet works. In doing so, the country is using methods pioneered by China and Iran, forming an authoritarian model of internet regulation that contrasts with the more open approach of the United States.

Russia “has reached a new level of blocking over the past six months,” said Mikhail Klimarev, a Russian telecommunications expert and executive director of the Internet Protection Society, a civil society group.

Internet censorship has been growing in Russia for more than a decade, but the scale and effectiveness of the most recent blocks have surprised even technical experts. These techniques add to an infrastructure of repression built by Mr. Putin to control protesters and opponents and serve the country with a regime of state propaganda.

The moves come at a critical time for Mr. Putin, who is tending to memorials to Alexei A. Navalny, the Kremlin’s fiercest critic, after his death last month in a Russian prison, as well as the effects of the ongoing war in Ukraine. . On Friday, Russians will also begin heading to the polls to vote in a presidential election that Mr Putin is almost certain to win, with tightening controls on the internet showing the government has no intention of taking risks.

Roskomnadzor, Russia’s main internet regulator, did not respond to a request for comment.

In intensifying its crackdown on the Internet, Russia has taken inspiration from China, where the Internet is heavily restricted and social media closely monitored.

In 2016, Fang Binxing, the father of China’s Great Firewall, the system used to censor the country’s Internet, met with his Russian counterparts. The relationship has since grown, according to leaked meeting notes reviewed by The New York Times. The documents show how internet officials from the two countries met in 2017 and 2019 to share information on combating encryption, blocking foreign sites and limiting protests.

The lessons learned from the discussions have now been put into practice in Russia.

In January, as protests rocked the industrial province of Bashkortostan, authorities managed to limit local access to messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram. Similar shutdowns have occurred recently in the regions of Dagestan and Yakutia, said Mr. Klimarev, who monitors online censorship in Russia and operates a company called VPN Generator.

After Mr Navalny’s death last month, more restrictions followed. During Mr. Navalny’s funeral in Moscow, cellular networks in nearby areas were reduced to slower speeds, making it difficult to post videos and images on social media, Mr. Klimarev said.

In recent weeks, Russian technology companies and online activists have also reported new government efforts to identify patterns of Internet traffic originating from virtual private networks, or VPNs, software designed to bypass blocks.

Roskomnadzor identifies large and small VPNs and cuts off connections, closing many of the remaining loopholes that allowed Russians to access global news sites or banned social media sites like Instagram. This approach, considered more sophisticated than previous tactics and requiring specialized technologies, mimics what China does during sensitive political moments.

Some VPNs remain available in Russia, but they are becoming difficult to find. A law that came into force on March 1 prohibits the advertising of these services.

“If we look at the beginning of 2022, finding a VPN was not that difficult,” said Stanislav Shakirov, technical director of Roskomsvoboda, a civil society group that supports an open Internet, adding that this change indicates how quickly Russia’s capabilities have evolved. improved.

Russia is also changing the way it censors websites and internet services. After relying primarily on telecom operators to block sites on a published blacklist, authorities now appear to rely more on centralized technology to more discreetly block and slow traffic from Moscow, researchers say .

Authorities appear to be balancing the desire for Internet control with technical limitations and fears of provoking public anger by restricting popular online platforms, such as YouTube and Telegram, which are used for news, entertainment and communication. The government has also faced engineering problems, including earlier this year when many major websites were taken offline for about 90 minutes, a period experts attributed to botched testing of a new blocking system.

Authorities were most likely preparing for events that could arise during this weekend’s elections, experts say. Mr Navalny’s supporters have called on people to go to the polls at midday on Sunday to vote against Mr Putin, hoping that images of long queues will show the world the scale of the discontent. The government could undermine the plan if it manages to prevent the images from being released.

The techniques are based on a Chinese-inspired manual that becomes more and more sophisticated each year. At high-level meetings between China and Russia in 2017, Russian officials sought advice on methods to block websites, restrict access to the global Internet, and build a government-controlled Internet similar to the Great Firewall, according to meeting minutes and notes. which were made available online by DDoSecrets, a group that publishes leaked documents.

Discussions also included how to combat the rise in encrypted data streams, how to target larger consumer messaging apps, and what to do about services such as VPNs that can bypass blockages. In the exchanges, China highlighted its use of real-name registration – a system that requires the use of a government ID card to sign up for cellular services and social media – as a way to control people.

China and Russia must “establish the necessary ties to jointly counter current threats in the cyber environment,” Alexander Zharov, who was the head of Roskomnadzor, told visiting Chinese officials in 2017, according to a leaked copy of the speech.

In recent months, Russia’s VPN blocking has gone further than ever.

“The level of blocking we see in Russia far exceeds what we see in China,” said Yegor Sak, founder of Windscribe, a Canadian VPN provider used in Russia to bypass Internet blocks.

With WhatsApp and Telegram, Russia has taken a different approach to China. After largely leaving the services alone for years, authorities recently decided to cut off access to the apps at key moments of political instability. In Bashkortostan, a manufacturing and mining hub with a large indigenous population, authorities temporarily cut off access to Telegram and WhatsApp in January in response to protests that erupted after the arrest of a local environmental activist.

Meta, owner of WhatsApp, declined to comment. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

The outages became such a problem that people left messages on the social media pages of local politicians to reactivate services because they needed them in daily life, according to posts on VK, the main networking site social in Russia.

“I can’t go to school and I can’t talk to the doctor or my loved ones,” one user said. “Give us back WhatsApp and Telegram,” wrote another.

The blocks were “very significant” because the messaging apps, used by millions, were considered difficult to disrupt, according to Ksenia Ermoshina, an expert on Russian censorship and surveillance technology. Telecommunications companies most likely cooperated, following government orders, she explained.

The experience suggests growing capabilities that could be used in future moments of crisis, potentially limiting the rise of political movements.

“People protest when they see other people protesting,” Ms. Ermoshina said. But thanks to its ability to cut ties between regions, the Russian government can “better control regionalist and separatist movements” and prevent protests or other expressions of anger from spreading.

Openings for unregulated Internet traffic are gradually being closed. At telecommunications points where transnational Internet cables enter Russia, the government is asking companies to install new monitoring equipment, analysts say.

“The Soviet Union is back,” said Mazay Banzaev, the operator of a Russian VPN called Amnezia. “With this, total censorship returns.”

Anatoly Kurmanaev reports contributed.