Russia changes its ‘sovereign internet’ as it tries to curb Twitter

The recent Russian internet censorship decision to start slow down Twitter was a sign of Moscow’s determination to take on Silicon Valley and marked a test of its new infrastructure for a “sovereign Internet” less dependent on Western tech companies.

Exercising greater control over foreign social media – the biggest outlet for dissent in Russia – became more pressing for the Kremlin after supporters of jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny used them to stage protests in the nationwide in January.

Moscow threatened to ban Twitter if it did not remove 3,168 posts from 2017 that it said encouraged illegal activity. The warning came after President Vladimir Putin declared that society “would collapse from within” if the internet did not “submit to the formal legal rules and moral laws of society.”

On Monday, the censor backtracked after claiming that Twitter deleted 1,900 of the contentious posts. He said he would extend the slowdown until mid-May to force the company to fully comply with the law. Twitter was not immediately available for comment.

But action against Big Tech comes with its own risks. The ripple effect of the Twitter slowdown last month meant that within hours the websites of the Kremlin, the Russian parliament and several government agencies went offline – including that of the censor himself, Roskomnadzor – pointing out Moscow’s dependence on foreign Internet infrastructure.

The Sovereign Internet, in fact a parallel Web run entirely on Russian servers, is believed to have the technology to selectively restrict access to prohibited content without the risk of collateral damage. Russian censors say they have learned lessons from a disastrous attempt to ban Telegram messaging app in 2018, which released more than 16 million independent sites while Telegram, still easily accessible, increased its audience from 10 to 30 million.

Vladimir Putin, left, meets Andrei Lipov, the head of Roskomnadzor, the censor whose own website has been affected by the Twitter slowdown © Alexei Nikolsky / TASS / Getty

The restrictions against Twitter are the first significant use of the sovereign Internet thanks to a technology known as deep packet inspection, which theoretically gives censors the ability to filter individual pages without taking away thousands of others.

“It is a step forward for the state to have control of its entire Internet infrastructure, even if it still does not have it completely. It is not only a question of ad hoc control of the content, of calling [companies] to say, “Can you please block this website”. Now they have these levers of control, ”said Alena Epifanova, researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

The first results show that there may be wrinkles in the system. The slowdown also appears to be affecting several websites whose domains use the “” Twitter uses for shortened web addresses.

“They still cannot control all of the servers that Twitter uses because they have different servers for their content delivery network around the world,” Epifanova said.

The threat to ban social media outright – as Moscow did with LinkedIn in 2016 – has failed to prompt the Silicon Valley giants to comply with Russian laws on data whereabouts and banned content.

Facebook and Google are also not vulnerable to the kind of pressure Russia exerts on local tech companies. Russian search engine Yandex gave the Kremlin an effective veto over its governance if US-based investors attempted to take control. The streaming platform ivi is said to have put aside plans for an initial public offering after lawmakers decided to limit foreign funding of online entertainment sites in the same direction.

Unable to establish a solid foothold on platforms such as YouTube, where Navalny has millions more subscribers than state television channels, Russian lawmakers pledge to ban sites that “discriminate” against pro media. Kremlin.

“Western media and society are trying to present it in a very politically biased way, that we’re going to block everything. But in fact, we are the victim here, ”said Anton Gorelkin, a member of parliament who is preparing a comprehensive bill to regulate foreign tech companies, in an interview. “Foreign companies work here, earn billions, but don’t pay taxes and don’t cooperate with our perfectly reasonable demands.

Protester takes photos with her smartphone at a rally in January in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow in front of law enforcement officials

A protester takes photos during a January rally in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow in front of the police © Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP / Getty

Russia is hoping the threat of a ban backed by its new technology will finally force Silicon Valley to comply with its laws.

Gorelkin highlighted Apple’s compliance with a new law it drafted that requires smartphone makers to preinstall a range of Russian apps, including Yandex’s competitors for Google’s email and cloud storage, as well as long forgotten messengers such as ICQ.

“We have a highly competitive market. If a large western company decides to exit our market at some point, nothing disastrous will happen, ”Gorelkin said. “The market will be divided among the other players.”

Although Russia is one of the few countries that has strong local Silicon Valley competitors in Yandex research and’s social media, they remain exceptions in what remains a Western-dominated market. .

However, if the sovereign Internet makes accessing Western sites complicated enough, it may have the desired effect, said Sergei Sanovich, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Information and Technology Policy at Princeton University.

“There is, however, a market principle that the Russian government respects, and that is that the consumer is always right. This is what differentiates them from Soviet predecessors and makes them similar to the Chinese, ”Sanovich said.

“They interpret it in the most cynical way possible: only the average consumer matters and they will consume whatever is offered to them as long as it is reasonably entertaining and very easy to access,” he added.

“They correctly understand that with an information overload, very low barriers to accessing a platform could give a huge boost to an alternative platform that they control.

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