Russia slipped from "partly free" in 2014 to "not free" in 2015 in the internet freedom rating published by the Freedom House monitoring organisation on October 28, with the country scoring 62 compared with 60 last year. The scale runs from 0, or complete freedom, to 100, or total government oppression.
The rating mainly deteriorated because of the law on blacklisted websites signed by President Vladimir Putin in late 2013, which allows the government to ban sites where content is deemed extremist, the Freedom House assessment said.
"Russia's environment for internet freedom declined significantly as the government took multiple steps to increase control over the online sphere, particularly in advance of the Sochi Olympic Games in February 2014 and throughout the ongoing crises in Crimea and eastern Ukraine," the report said.
"Since mid-2014, the authorities have continued to constrict the environment for freedom of expression and information online by blocking or economically targeting critical media outlets, increasing criminal penalties for online activities, and prosecuting or arresting internet users for their posts," it continued.
Russia's population of 143.7mn people has a 71% internet penetration. However, suspicions about foreign government manipulation of the internet remain entrenched, with Putin even claiming in 2014 that the entire internet was a "CIA project".
"The internet penetration rate in Russia continues to grow, and the majority of would-be users can find internet access at an acceptable speed and for an affordable price," the report notes. "At the same time, the market for information and communication technologies (ICTs) is still heavily regulated, and most services are under direct or indirect state control."
Going to extremes
As tensions with the West escalated over Ukraine from early 2014, Russian authorities became increasingly stringent over violations of media regulations by Western internet companies.
Citing security issues like threats of extremism, breaches of laws on drugs, copyright and materials advocating suicide, the state has squeezed the operating space of providers and stepped up registration requirements for bloggers and some other users.
Russian authorities have already blocked or use the threat of blocking services to have content deemed extremist removed. In September, the communications regulator Roskomnadzor blocked the video and news service of Yahoo after prosecutors ruled that one page containing an Islamic State video was extremist in nature.
Since Yahoo uses the secure https protocol, which doesn't allow a blockage of single pages, all of the company's video and news content was affected by the move, which regulators said followed eight warnings to the US company that action would be taken. Yahoo administration deleted the page within three hours after content was blocked.
Erosion of internet freedom did not grow only after the Ukraine stand-off began last year. The Russian Internet Restriction Bill of 2012 also instituted a federal blacklist with individual URLs, domain names, and IP addresses. In August 2015, Roskomnadzor put social news site Reddit and Wikipedia on the list because of articles about the cultivation of narcotic plants. The sites were removed from the list after the content was removed.
In July, the regulator also put YouTube on the blacklist for copyright infringement, paralysing all content because of one page. Access to YouTube was not restricted in the end as the site administration quickly removed the links to specific pirated videos.
Data storage tool
Concerns about state control over the internet also grew with the introduction of a law in September that requires foreign internet companies store data of Russian clients on servers inside the country.
Web experts say a major reason behind the law is Russian efforts to paenetrate the https protocol used by Gmail and Facebook. National security services internet monitoring systems cannot handle https because of the encryption used.
However, the exact scope of the new law is still unclear, as are the authorities' intentions to enforce it. Observers have also speculated that the law creates a tool to force global internet companies to talk to the Kremlin and also to open offices in Russia to make them more susceptible to pressure from authorities. Of the major internet giants, only Google has an office in Moscow.
The new regulations already compelled Google, eBay, Paypal, Aliexpress, Samsung, Apple and Lenovo to rent data centres in Russia. Lenovo, for example, reportedly spent $50,000 on transferring its client data.
Meanwhile, the head of the Russia Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said in August that government officials should not use services such as WhatsApp and Google, since these were vulnerable to having their communications intercepted.