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One Theory on How the Russian Government Will Censor Citizens Online

BY Lisa Goldman | Tuesday, July 17 2012

In a strongly-worded analysis for Open Democracy, Russian security expert and investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov explains that the Russian government, wanting to prevent the type of online political activism that fired the Arab Spring, wants to take control of Russia's social networks.

Last week techPresident noted popular opposition in Russia to a bill that stood to give that government sweeping powers to control its citizens' speech on the Internet. The bill called for a blacklist of undesirable websites, with the government legally permitted to order blacklisted sites censored within 24 hours of their listing. The government said the bill was meant to protect children from online predators and users in general from political extremists, but the opposition dismissed these claims, countering that the bill — actually a series of amendments to the Law on Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information — was the government's thinly disguised attempt to censor the Internet. Shortly after the Russian Wikipedia went dark to protest what it viewed as a government attempt to censor the Internet, the Duma passed the bill into law.

Soldatov first puts the bill in context:

After the Arab Spring, the Kremlin gave serious thought to developing facilities for averting 'enemy activity' on the Russian Internet. The problem has been under discussion since the summer of 2011 at various levels: the heads of state of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation members, prosecutors general and the security services. The growth of political activism in Russia and the role of social networking in mobilising protestors only increased the paranoia. It seemed, however, that the security services were unable to devise an effective strategy to deal with the problem.

And then he explains how it may be part of a broader government strategy:

The text of the draft law states that the Register will list not only domain names and URLs, but individual page selectors too. To block sites, providers will have to buy expensive DPI (deep packet inspection) equipment, which enables the provider to split the traffic into separate streams, dividing up audio, video, images, spam etc. With this equipment a provider will be able to block requests for, and from, specific addresses; the provider will also be able to turn off individual services – for example, to completely block internet-telephony i.e. Skype, which has so far been difficult to monitor.

DPI can even be used to "...compel local providers to use DPI to change the URLs of discussion groups in social networks" - such as Facebook page discussions.

Meanwhile, the government has decided to train its diplomats in effective use of social media for the dissemination of the government's position. According to independent reporting site Rianovosti, the Foreign Ministry has already begun training diplomats in effective use of Twitter and will soon launch its own Facebook page. The Ministry has also launched a YouTube page, "where internet users can watch videos of speeches by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other senior Russian diplomats, as well as other video materials related to Russia’s foreign policy and international relations."

Vladimir Putin reportedly urged diplomats to use social media "to improve Russia's image and defend its interests."