Russia: Year of Doubling Down on Internet Censorship

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A young man wearing a face mask checks his mobile phone at the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, May 26, 2020.
© 2020 Jesus Merida / SOPA Images/Sipa via AP Images

(Moscow) – Russian authorities redoubled their efforts in 2021 to repress internet freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today. The government blocked popular censorship circumvention tools, experimented with novel censorship technologies, expanded oppressive internet legislation, and pressured tech companies to comply with the increasingly stifling regulations.

“The Russian government is using its growing technological capacity to engage in nontransparent, unlawful, and extrajudicial restriction of digital rights in Russia,” said Anastasiia Kruope, assistant Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This past year’s dramatic crackdown on internet freedoms is the culmination of many years’ efforts by the authorities to restrict the rights and freedoms of Russians online.”

Since the adoption of the “sovereign internet” law in 2019, and the raft of bylaws that grew around it, the government has further increased its control over the internet infrastructure in Russia. More draft laws are in the works.

In December, Russian authorities blocked The Onion Router (Tor), an encrypted browser commonly used to circumvent local internet censorship or manipulation or to browse the internet anonymously. The action, affecting Tor’s more than 300,000 daily users in Russia, raised serious concerns in the Russian online community over intensifying internet censorship.

Commenting on the Tor blocking, the Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor referred to a 2017 court ruling that had restricted access to Tor services based on a prosecutor’s contention that it enabled access to extremist materials. Tor said that it had only received a Roskomnadzor order to take down “restricted content” in December 2021, and that the order did not specify which content the authorities wanted removed.

Tor interpreted the authorities’ move to block the site as “an instance of censorship” and said that Russian users, 15 percent of all Tor users, should use its “bridges” – the private relays that allow users to mask the use of Tor from external observers. Tor has since reported that several Russian internet service providers had blocked some of the bridges.

Since June, Roskomnadzor has blocked at least eight virtual private network (VPN) services for allegedly violating a 2017 law that prohibits proxy services, such as VPNs and internet anonymizers, from facilitating access to websites banned in Russia. The law provides for “restriction of access” for violators. In December, the authorities opened inquiries into the work of six more VPN services.

Internet censorship experts report that Russia’s efforts to block Tor and, at least to a certain extent, VPNs, is facilitated by its deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows the authorities to directly filter, reroute, and block internet traffic. The 2019 “sovereign internet” law requires all internet service providers to install DPI technology in their networks.

The Russian government has not been transparent about how it is enforcing the sovereign internet law and testing DPI technology.

Internet service providers’ public messaging on whether using this technology disrupts users’ ability to access blocked content or use the internet anonymously has been mixed, while the authorities claimed the technology caused no disruptions. At the same time, media and IT experts report accidental blocking and internet disruption associated with the use of DPI.

In March, the authorities used DPI technology to “throttle,” or slow down, the access to Twitter for its failure to take down content the government deemed unlawful and threatened to block Twitter altogether. After Roskomnadzor made the announcement, access to some state and private websites and online systems was temporarily disrupted, suggesting that the authorities are not able to use DPI technology to throttle specific sites without collateral damage.

This measure came weeks after Twitter and other foreign and Russian social media companies had been issued large fines for failure to take down posts calling for participation in peaceful mass protests in support of prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

In August, a leading Russian digital rights group, Roskomsvoboda, filed a lawsuit in a Moscow court on behalf of 23 users, contending that the Twitter throttling was illegal, as no such measure was directly envisaged by law, and violated the right of the applicants to communicate via the platform. The court dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the users’ rights were not affected.

The authorities repeatedly threaten to block access fully or partially to the websites of foreign and Russian tech giants over alleged noncompliance with the country’s internet legislation.

In September, digital rights groups reported temporary blocking of access to the Google Docs service by some of the country’s largest internet service providers. Navalny’s team used this service for its “Smart Voting” project before the parliamentary elections, publishing the list of candidates who, in their opinion, had the best chances of defeating the ruling party’s candidates. The digital rights groups said the temporary blocking illustrated the extrajudicial and nontransparent nature of DPI technology. The authorities denied blocking Google Docs.

Over the past year, the authorities have fined tech companies, including major social media platforms, for allegedly violating Russian internet legislation. In 2021, authorities fined Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Google, TikTok, and other internet companies a total of at least 187 million RUB (US$2.5 million) over failures to take down supposedly illegal content. The government also increased fines for violating a requirement to store the personal data of Russian users in the country.

In June, parliament adopted a law on foreign tech companies providing services to Russian users. The law requires websites with more than 500,000 daily users in Russia to open in-country offices by January 2022. Sanctions for noncompliance include banning the company from advertising or from using ads on their websites, restricting payments to the companies, and partial or full blocking of access to their websites.

According to Roskomnadzor, this law is applicable to 13 companies, which it listed in November, including Google; Apple; Meta Platforms, which includes Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other companies; Twitter; Tiktok; and Telegram.

In September, Apple and Google removed Navalny’s voting app from their app stores after demands from Russian law enforcement. An aide to Navalny tweeted a screenshot of an email from Apple that indicated the Roskomnadzor had ordered the app’s removal because it included content deemed illegal in Russia, and doesn’t comply with App Store policies.

The Russian state news agency TASS had previously reported that Roskomnadzor ordered Google and Apple to remove the app due to a requirement from the Russian Attorney General’s Office to restrict access to information linked to Navalny’s organization, which has been designated “extremist” and is banned in Russia.

The New York Times reported that Google removed the app after Russian authorities named specific in-country staff who would face prosecution if it didn’t. Neither company has publicly explained their response to the Russian government’s demands or responded to Human Rights Watch’s requests for comment.

While companies are understandably concerned for their in-country staff, they also have a responsibility to respect rights. The events in Russia raise concerns about possible corporate-assisted censorship in other countries that have passed laws that require companies to appoint in-country representatives, Human Rights Watch said.

The Russian government has also attempted to use its domestic legislation to dictate content moderation practices to internet companies, even in relation to their business operations in other countries.

In December, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube for taking down the German language channel of the pro-government media company Russia Today. The agency cited a Russian law adopted in December 2020 and supposedly aimed at safeguarding Russians’ right of access to information. The law allows the authorities to block websites over censored Russian state media content. In September, YouTube had blocked the Russia Today channel in Germany for violating its policies by disseminating false information about Covid-19. Dissemination of false information in circumstances threatening to the lives and safety of people is a criminal offense in Russia.

Among other new laws that raise concerns is legislation that requires specific websites designated by the authorities to monitor the number of users and their preferences, and a law allowing for extrajudicial blocking of supposedly defamatory information.

International law allows for certain restrictions on freedom of expression online for protection of national security or of public order, health, or morals. Those restrictions, however, should be in line with the criteria of necessity, proportionality, and legality. The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression has emphasized that international law requires these limits to be “provided by law, which is clear and accessible to everyone,” and to be predictable and transparent.

The Russian authorities should stop imposing inappropriately extreme measures, such as throttling and blocking, on freedom of expression and access to information in a manner disproportionate to the conduct they sanction, Human Rights Watch said.

“Russian authorities claim that they’re working to safeguard the interests of Russian internet users,” Kruope said. “Instead, relying on their growing arsenal of internet censorship, they are rapidly turning the internet in Russia into a zone of repression. The government should respect digital rights instead of undermining them.”

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