(Moscow) – Russian authorities have redoubled their efforts in 2021 to crack down on internet freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has blocked popular censorship circumvention tools, experimented with new censorship technologies, extended oppressive internet legislation, and pressured tech companies to comply with increasingly stifling regulations.
“The Russian government is using its growing technological capacity to engage in non-transparent, illegal and extrajudicial restrictions on digital rights in Russia,” said Anastasiia Kruope, deputy researcher for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “The dramatic crackdown on Internet freedoms last year is the culmination of many years of efforts by authorities to restrict the rights and freedoms of Russians online.
Since the adoption of the “Sovereign Internet” law in 2019 and the series of regulations surrounding it, the government has further increased its control over the Internet infrastructure in Russia. Other bills are in preparation.
In December, Russian authorities blocked The Onion Router (Tor), an encrypted browser commonly used to bypass censorship or local internet manipulation or to browse the internet anonymously. The action, affecting more than 300,000 daily Tor users in Russia, has raised serious concerns within the Russian online community about heightened internet censorship.
Commenting on the blocking of Tor, Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor referred to a 2017 court ruling that restricted access to Tor services based on a prosecutor’s claim that it allowed access to extremist documents. Tor said it was not ordered from Roskomnadzor to remove “restricted content” until December 2021, and that the order did not specify what content authorities wanted to remove.
Tor interpreted the authorities’ decision to block the site as “a case of censorship” and said Russian users, 15% of all Tor users, should use its “bridges” – the private relays that allow users to hide Tor use from outside observers. Tor has since reported that several Russian internet service providers have blocked some of the bridges.
Since June, Roskomnadzor has blocked at least eight virtual private network (VPN) services for allegedly breaking a 2017 law that bans proxy services, such as VPNs and Internet anonymizers, from facilitating access to banned websites by Russia. The law provides for an “access restriction” for offenders. In December, authorities opened investigations into the work of six other VPN services.
Internet censorship experts report that Russia’s efforts to block Tor, and at least to some extent VPNs, are aided by its deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows authorities to filter , redirect and block Internet traffic directly. The “sovereign internet” law of 2019 requires all internet service providers to install DPI technology in their networks.
The Russian government has not been transparent about how it enforces sovereign internet law and tests DPI technology.
Public messages from internet service providers as to whether the use of this technology interferes with users’ ability to access blocked content or use the internet anonymously have been mixed, while authorities have claimed that the technology has not caused no disturbance. At the same time, media and IT experts are reporting accidental freezes and internet disruptions associated with the use of DPI.
In March, authorities used DPI technology to “strangle” or slow down access to Twitter for its inability to remove content the government deemed illegal and threatened to block Twitter altogether. After Roskomnadzor’s announcement, access to some public and private websites and online systems was temporarily interrupted, suggesting that authorities are unable to use DPI technology to strangle specific sites without collateral damage.
The move came weeks after Twitter and other foreign and Russian social media companies were fined heavily for failing to remove posts calling for participation in peaceful mass protests in support of the eminent 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, claiming that limiting Twitter was illegal because no such measure was directly contemplated. by law and violated the claimants’ rights. communicate via the platform. The court dismissed the lawsuit, saying users’ rights were unaffected.
Authorities have repeatedly threatened to block access to all or part of the websites of foreign and Russian tech giants for alleged non-compliance with the country’s internet laws.
In September, digital rights groups reported the 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 their “Smart Voting” project ahead of the parliamentary elections, posting the list of candidates they believed had the best chance of beating the ruling party candidates. Digital rights groups have said the temporary blocking illustrates the extrajudicial and non-transparent nature of DPI technology. Authorities have denied blocking Google Docs.
Over the past year, authorities have fined tech companies, including major social media platforms, for allegedly breaking Russian internet law. In 2021, authorities fined Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Google, TikTok and other internet companies a total of at least 187 million rubles (US $ 2.5 million) for not removing content. allegedly illegal. The government has also increased the fines for violating the obligation to store the personal data of Russian users in the country.
In June, parliament passed a law on foreign technology companies providing services to Russian users. The law requires websites with more than 500,000 daily users in Russia to open offices in the country by January 2022. Penalties for non-compliance include prohibiting the company from advertising or from using advertisements on their websites, restricting payments to businesses and blocking partial or total 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; TIC Tac; and Telegram.
In September, Apple and Google removed Navalny’s voting app from their app stores following requests from Russian law enforcement. A Navalny employee tweeted a screenshot of an email from Apple indicating that Roskomnadzor ordered the app to be removed because it included content deemed illegal in Russia and inconsistent with App policies Store.
Russian state news agency TASS previously reported that Roskomnadzor ordered Google and Apple to remove the app due to a requirement by the Russian Attorney General’s office to restrict access to information related to the Navalny’s organization, which was designated “extremist” and is banned in Russia.
The New York Times reported that Google removed the app after Russian authorities appointed specific staff in the country who would face prosecution if they were not. Neither company has publicly explained its response to Russian government requests or responded to Human Rights Watch’s requests for comment.
While companies are understandably concerned about their staff in the country, 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 requiring companies to appoint representatives in the country, Human Rights Watch said.
The Russian government has also attempted to use its domestic law to dictate content moderation practices to Internet companies, even in connection with their business operations in other countries.
In December, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube for removing the German-language channel from pro-government media company Russia Today. The agency cited a Russian law passed in December 2020 that purported to protect Russians’ right of access to information. The law allows authorities to block websites on censored Russian state media content. In September, YouTube blocked the Russia Today channel in Germany for violating its policy by broadcasting false information about Covid-19. It is a criminal offense in Russia to disseminate false information in circumstances threatening life and safety.
Other new laws of concern include legislation that requires specific websites designated by authorities to monitor the number of users and their preferences, and a law allowing the extrajudicial blocking of allegedly defamatory information.
International law allows certain restrictions on freedom of expression online for the protection of national security or public order, health or morals. These restrictions, however, should comply with the criteria of necessity, proportionality and legality. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has stressed that international law requires that these limits be “prescribed by law, which is clear and accessible to all”, and that they be predictable and transparent.
Russian authorities should stop imposing grossly inappropriate measures, such as limiting and blocking, freedom of expression and access to information disproportionately to the conduct they are penalizing , Human Rights Watch said.
“Russian authorities claim they are working to protect 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. “