Kremlin tightens control of Russian internet, media

By bne IntelliNews September 22, 2014

Graham Stack in Berlin -


As tensions with the West escalate over the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin is cracking down on freedom of opinion domestically - forging plans to shut off access to the global internet in the event of war or political unrest, and to sideline foreign-owned mass media, at the same time as an oligarch close to the Kremlin completes his monopolisation of Russia's social media.

President Vladimir Putin will convene a meeting of Russia's security council September 22 to consider how the Russian web could be uncoupled from the global web "in an emergency" such as war or attempted revolution, according to business daily Vedomosti on September 19.

According to Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's security services, in comments made to The Guardian, this might indeed be technically possible for Moscow to do so because Russia has "surprisingly few" international exchange points, and all of them are under the control of state-owned long-distance operators, such as Rostelecom.

The overarching goal of Russia's new cybersecurity strategy is to strengthen Russia's internet “sovereignty.” According to Vedomosti, one further proposal to be considered by the security council was to take direct control over the .ru domain, which is currently administered by a non-governmental organisation, the Coordinating Centre of the National Internet Domain.

Soldatov said such a move could see Russia following in Kazakhstan's footsteps, where the state took over administration of internet domains two years ago. "The thing might be approved very quickly, and this means it shows a way to the next step – to force all domains in the .ru zone to be hosted in Russia," Soldatov told The Guardian.

The Kremlin acknowledges a looming policy shift, but says this is to do with national security, not repression, at a time of increased tension with the West over Russian aggression in Ukraine. The Kremlin appears concerned about how Russia's dependency on US technology and digital infrastructure might expose it to security risks. According to internal presentations from the National Security Agency, leaked by Edward Snowden, Russia is in the NSA's top-five worldwide espionage targets, alongside "axis of evil" states Iran, Iraq, North Korea, as well as Afghanistan.

According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, the fear is that the USA might switch Russia off from the global internet. “Russia is not considering the possibility of shutting itself off from the global internet, but is considering defensive measures in connection with the unpredictability of western partners,” Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to Russian president Vladimir Putin, told Interfax September 19. “Recently our partners in the EU and USA have shown a fair degree of unpredictability and we have to be ready for everything,” Peskov added.

According to Vedomosti's sources, the Kremlin worries lest the USA exclude Russia from the system of IP address assignation, using its influence over the US-based non-profit organisation Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the top authority in administrating the internet's domains. “It is well known who is the main administrator of the global internet. In connection with this unpredictability, we have to consider how to ensure national security,” Peskov said.

However, it would be difficult to filter the global internet in Russia, as the Chinese government does in China, because Russia's internet is closely integrated in international structures, for instance intensively using international hosting services and data centres, Russia's internet ombudsman Dmitry Marinichev told Vedomosti. Many Russian operators are not connected to Russia internet points of exchange and instead use Western Europe networks for traffic, he said.

Foreign media ownership to be slashed

The hostile moves towards the internet are ominous in a week that saw a bill introduced to the Duma September 17 on restricting foreign ownership of any media resource to 20%. Although introduced by backbench MPs, it is believed to enjoy Kremlin support, and a fast passage through parliament is likely.

Currently, foreign entities are restricted from owning more than 50% of broadcast media, with no restriction on print or internet. Any media not conforming with the law by January 1, 2017 will have to close, according to the draft bill.

Media experts argue that the real target of the law are publications Vedomosti and Forbes, which carry out hard-hitting and respected investigations that shed vital light on machinations by the Kremlin, oligarchs, security forces and organised crime.

According to Vedomosti, the Duma will approve the amendments in the coming week. One of the authors of the law told Parlamentskaya Gazeta that such restrictions on foreign media ownership exist in some EU countries for non-EU owners, although this is a dubious claim. Estimates say that around a half of all media could be affected by the law, since many resources are owned via offshores.

Social media monopolised

Not only the mass media and Internet infrastructure is facing tighter Kremlin control. On September 16, close Kremlin ally, oligarch Alisher Usmanov, acquired 48.01% of Russia's largest social network, vkontakte, to give it 100% control of the network. Usmanov, who in the 1980s served time in jail on what he says were trumped-up charges, now owns all three of Russia's largest social networks, vkontakte, odnoklassniki and my world, as well as a stake in Facebook.

In spring 2014 founder and CEO Pavel Durov left the company - and Russia - after a dispute with Usmanov believed to be over whether or not to allow Russia's security services access to vkontake's user files.

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