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China censors the internet. So why not Russia?




MOSKW Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-controlled RT television network, recently called on the government to block access to Western social media.

She wrote: Foreign platforms in Russia must be shut down.

Her choice of social network for sending this message: Twitter.

While the Kremlin fears an open Internet formed by American companies, it simply cannot leave it.

The winter of Russian discontent, the waves of nationwide protests launched by the return of opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny, has been made possible by the countries’ free and open internet. The state controls television waves, but the dramatic online arrest of Mr Navalny after arriving in Moscow, his investigation into President Vladimir V. Putins claiming it was the secret palace and his supporters calling for protest were all broadcast to an audience of many of millions.

For years, the Russian government has set up technological and legal infrastructure to ban free speech on the Internet, leading to frequent predictions that the country could move towards Internet censorship, similar to China’s huge firewall.

But even when Mr Putin faced the biggest protests in years last month, his government seemed willing and, to some extent, unable to block websites or take other drastic measures to limit the spread of digital dissent.

Hesitation has highlighted the challenge Mr. Putin faces as he tries to dilute the political implications of high-speed Internet access reaching the far corners of the vast country while avoiding the anger of a population that is in love with Instagram, YouTube, Twitter. and TikTok.

They were afraid, Dmitry Galushko, a telecommunications consultant in Moscow, said why the Kremlin has not been pressed harder. They have taken all these weapons but they do not know how to use them.

More broadly, the question of how to deal with the Internet poses a dilemma for Mr. Putin Russia: whether to increase state repression to new heights and risk a public backlash or continue trying to manage public discontent while maintaining a view of an open society.

In China, government control went hand in hand with the early development of the Internet. But in Russia, home to a Soviet legacy of a large group of engineering talents, digital entrepreneurship flourished freely for two decades, until Mr. Putin began trying to curb online speech after the 2011 and 2012 anti-government protests.

At that time, the open internet was so ingrained in business and society and its architecture was so decentralized that it was too late to radically change course. But efforts to censor the web, as well as demands that internet providers install equipment for government oversight and control, gained momentum in the bill as the bill passed Parliament. At the same time, internet access continues to expand, in part thanks to government support.

Russian officials now say they have the technology set up to allow a sovereign RuNet a network that will continue to give Russians access to Russian websites even if the country is disconnected from the World Wide Web. The official line is that this expensive infrastructure provides protection in the event that evil Western forces try to cut off Russia’s communications links. But activists say it is actually intended to give the Kremlin the opportunity to separate some or all of Russia from the world.

In principle, it will be possible to restore or enable the autonomous functioning of the Russian Internet segment, Dmitry A. Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Mr. Putin and a former Prime Minister, told reporters recently Technologically, everything is ready for this.

Amid these internal unrest, the noise of Russian slabs directed at Silicon Valley has reached a new intensity. Mr Navalny has used experts from Google YouTube, Facebooks Instagram and Twitter to reach tens of millions of Russians with his ready-made descriptions of official corruption memes, down to the $ 850 toilet brush he claimed to have identified on a property used by Mr. Putin.

At the same time, Russia has appeared powerless trying to stop those companies from blocking pro-Kremlin accounts or forcing them to remove pro-Navalny content. (Mr Navalnys’s voice is echoing on social media even behind bars: On Saturday, a court upheld his prison sentence of more than two years.)

Russia’s telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, has sought to publicly harass US Internet companies, sometimes several times a day. On Wednesday, the regulator tha se the social network of voice chats Clubhouse had violated the rights of citizens to access information and distribute it freely by suspending the account of a prominent director of state television, Vladimir Solovyov. On January 29, claimed that Google was blocking videos on YouTube containing the Russian national anthem, calling it flagrant and unacceptable rudeness towards all citizens of our country.

Clubhouse apparently blocked Mr.’s account. Solovyovs because of user complaints, while Google said some videos containing the Russian anthem were mistakenly blocked due to a content rights issue. Clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition, as calls for nationwide protests spread following Mr Navalnys’ arrest last month, Roskomnadzor said social networks were encouraging juveniles to engage in illegal activities.

Russian social network VKontakte and Chinese-owned app TikTok partially complied with Roskomnadzors’ order to block access to the protest content. But Facebook refused, stating, This content does not violate our community standards.

For all its criticism of American social media companies, the Kremlin has used them extensively to spread its message around the world. It was Facebook that served as a key tool in Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election. On YouTube, the state-controlled RT network has 14 million subscribers combined for its English, Spanish and Arabic language channels. .

Ms. Simonyan, editor of RT, says she will continue to use US social media platforms as long as they are not banned.

To give up using these platforms while everyone else is using them means to capitulate to the opponent, she said in a statement to The New York Times. To stop them for everyone means to defeat the said opponent.

A law signed by Mr. Putin in December gives his government new powers to block or restrict access to social networks, but it has not yet used them. When regulators tried to block access to the Telegram messaging app starting in 2018, the two-year effort ended in failure after Telegram found ways to restrict it.

Instead, officials are trying to lure Russians into social networks like VKontakte that are closely linked to the government. Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the state-owned natural gas giant, has promised to turn its long-range video platform RuTube into a YouTube competition. And in December he said he had bought a TikTok-modeled app called Ya Molodets Russian for Im great for sharing smartphone short videos.

Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who co-authored a book on the Kremlin’s attempts to control the Internet, says the strategy of persuading people to use Russian platforms is one way to keep dissent from going viral in times of crisis. As of April 1, all smartphones sold in Russia will be required to come pre-loaded with 16 Russian-made apps, including three social networks and a response to Apples Siri voice assistant called Marusya.

The goal is for a typical Russian user to live in a Russian app bubble, Mr Soldatov said. Potentially, it can be quite effective.

Even more effective, some activists say, is speeding up Mr’s car. Putins of selective oppression. A new law makes online defamation punishable by up to five years in prison, and the editor of a popular news website served 15 days in prison for retweeting a joke that included a reference to a pro-Navalny January protest.

In a widely circulated video this month, a SWAT team in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok can be seen questioning Gennady Shulga, a local video blogger who covered the protests. An officer with helmet, goggles and combat fatigue presses Mr. Shirtless shirts on a tiled floor next to two pet food bowls.

The Kremlin is losing a lot of information race, said Sarkis Darbinyan, an internet freedom activist. Self-censorship and fear are what were going right.

Oleg Matsnev contributed to the report.

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