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Russian Internet

December 13, 2011

Veteran Kremlinologist says he's not 'seeing a massive attack on Internet use in Russia at all.' However, he underlines a decade-old extensive monitoring system that keeps a watchful eye over domestic communication.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called for an electoral probeImage: picture alliance/dpa

Over the last nine days, the world has watched as protests have unfolded across Russia in the aftermath of the controversial parliamentary elections that critics argued were marred with fraud. On Sunday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced an electoral probe and re-iterated that he disagreed with calls from protesters over the weekend to hold fresh elections.

Both media outlets and election monitors have reported being hit with an overwhelming number of requests for data in an effort to knock them offline, and some of those affected are now saying the attacks against them were the work of state-sponsored criminals.

However, there have also been allegations that the Kremlin has been manipulating mobile Internet access in Moscow as a way to frustrate and disrupt protestors. To learn more, Deutsche Welle contacted Keir Giles, the director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, an Oxford-based non-profit research center that provides analysis on Russia and the region.

Keir Giles says that the Kremlin heavily monitors the Russian Internet
Keir Giles says that the Kremlin heavily monitors the Russian InternetImage: Conflict Studies Research Centre

Deutsche Welle: As best as we can tell, the Russian government has not interfered in terms of closing down or slowing down the Internet over the last 10 days. Is that your observation as well?

Keir Giles: It's a mixed picture. It's a very interesting response that you're getting from the authorities and probably also from private citizens in Russia as well. I think you're absolutely right, there is no attempt to reach for an "Internet kill switch" but there is interference around the edges with various methods being tried to attempt to restrict the amount of social protests that is going on via the Internet.

For example, the security service over there, the FSB, has asked VKontakte - the Russian equivalent of Facebook - to close down certain Internet resources. That request has been declined. VKontakte has said they will only shut down resources that are calling for violence. There was a nice quote that said: "We will shut down anything that says 'Death to Putin' just as we would shut down anything that says 'Death to Pupkin'" - an ordinary Russian, comic name. But they are not actually playing along to shut down any of the social protests.

Similarly there are ongoing attacks on those users that are posting on Twitter and elsewhere. Regarding organizing protests, there are a large number of twitterbots that were set up in July this year, that have suddenly become active, trying to drown out those posts with a particular hashtag related to the protests.

Some other sites that you might not think are directly involved, like media sites: the Echo of Moscow and the Slon [news portal] are coming under attack. The problem with this, as has happened before, when there are bloggers or social media users which are posting things that are disapproved of in Moscow is that there is a certain amount of collateral damage. VKontakte and LiveJournal are suffering difficulties as a result of these ongoing attacks on specific users, but there is a lot of damage and slowing down and difficulty of use that is spreading beyond those users' accounts.

Vkontakte.ru is a highly-popular Russian social networking platformImage: vkontakte.ru

Something that has piqued our interest has been this monitoring capability, called SORM. This was discussed in English-language press around 10 years ago, and as we understand it, was brought in by Putin when he came into office over a decade ago. Can you explain what this is and how it has been used in the last few days?

Yes, SORM [is a Russian acronym] that stands for the System for Operational Investigative Measures. It is effectively a monitoring system which is installed by, and at the expense of, ISPs in Russia, but which is insisted on by the Russian security service, the FSB, in order to monitor traffic. It goes hand-in-hand with a system whereby Russian ISPs have to keep a database of their users, including the identity document that they actually use to set up their account, which is permanently accessible to the security services. You linked the arrival of SORM to the arrival of Putin, but that's probably only really a broad coordination in time, because the roots of SORM go back a lot further. It goes back to the Russian security services perception that the Internet as a whole is a problem for the Russian Federation.

This goes way back to the early stages, in the mid-1990s when Russia was discovering the Internet, where there were discussions in the state Duma (Parliament) where the security services were arguing that Russia should avoid the Internet entirely, because it's a problem. The whole debate was called: "Russia and the Internet, the choice of a future."

Is that debate a matter of current public record?

It is a matter of public record, but it's not particularly easy to find. This was back at a time when the State Duma, the Russian parliament, actually did hold substantive debate on issues of national security, which is a little less prevalent these days, but yes, it can be found. The main problem was the security services already at that stage were aware of information technology and the potential for uncontrolled communication between users, posing a potential threat to security in the Russian Federation.

Russian Internet users
The Russian Internet has been highly monitored over the last decadeImage: AP

We've seen this come up again just over the last few days, where there was an interview with the Interior Ministry's Directorate K - K for computers - Major General of Police Alexei Moshkov, who said in a major newspaper interview that said, and I quote: "Social networks, along with their advantages, fairly often carry within themselves a potential threat to the stability of society." This is an ongoing preoccupation; it's not anything new that's arisen lately for Russia.

Just as the SORM system that was released at the beginning of the last decade, it's been there ever since, it's been evolving and it's just a fact of everyday life on the Russian Internet.

So no one seems to be particularly concerned about it, given its implementation over a decade ago?

There were concerns at the time, but we just have to bear in mind that the Russian approach to information security is very different from our own. Now, if somebody is attempting to mount an investigation or a criminal prosecution, in the West, for example, then there are problems of privacy - there are problems of collection of evidence, human rights, et cetera. [There are limits on] the powers of the police and the security services to mount an investigation and collect this personal information. In Russia, there is no such problem because it's already collected by default by the SORM.

One other point that we've seen raised recently, just in the context of these recent protests and the Russian response to them, is that the SORM could be used as a firewall or kill switch. That's been debated a little bit in the Russian media. Mr. Ponomarev, a Russian Duma deputy and Internet expert, seems to have suggested that there could be a reconfiguration of SORM to actually close down certain resources. I'd be very interested to see exactly how he thinks that might work because that's not really what it is designed for.

On the other hand, Russia has, from the beginning of this month, has instituted a long-planned censorship system for media operating on the Internet, where the list of keywords is designed to alert the authorities if something is published that is not to their taste.

Russian parliament
One member of the Russian parliament has alleged the Kremlin's manipulation of the SORM systemImage: AP

If the Russian government monitors everyone who is online - and has access to their identity documents and places of residence - that would make a lot of people think twice about posting things online.

You would have thought so. There is a reassuring noise from General Moshkov, who also said the other day: Let me remind you that there is no censorship on the Internet and that Directorate K, of the Interior Ministry, is not going to seek out anybody just for voicing criticism. So let's not think that just because someone is saying "We have a problem in Russia" that they will be arrested. The cynical joke goes that when looking at the selective application of some of the legislation in Russia: child pornography in Russia is not a problem, until the child pornographer starts saying "Down with Putin."

Of course, that's a massive exaggeration. There are prosecutions within Russia for things that we, in other countries, would consider to be criminal activity on the Internet - that does happen. But another thing to bear in mind is that since the introduction in March of this year of the new law, which is called "On Police," governing the power of the police and what they can and cannot do, it is much easier for the Russian authorities to close down any Internet resource or network than it was previously.

The legislative tool that was used previously was the law on extremism, which required a court order to be generated before a shutdown order was given to an ISP to close something down. Now, under the law "On Police," it just has to be on the basis of suspicion that some Internet resource is creating the conditions which facilitates the commission of a crime. No need for a court order, they could just pull the plug.

So on a whim, they could shut down VKontakte or LiveJournal?

They could. And the interesting point, of course, is that this has not happened. You're not seeing any of the sledgehammer tactics that could be employed if the Russian authorities are taking this as seriously as some people suggest that they are doing. We're not seeing a massive attack on Internet use in Russia at all. As I said, it is feeling around the edges, trying various tactics to try to impede the organization protests, or at least to control and monitor them, without actually trying to shut them down altogether.

So where you see those suggestions that Russia is closing down parts of the Internet, that doesn't actually appear to be the case at the moment. It is a mixed response which, in some cases, is sending contradictory messages to those people who are protesting on the Internet and also organizing live protests on the Internet. So it will be interesting to see over the next few days to see exactly how this develops further.

LiveJournal remains one of the country's most popular blogging platformsImage: malishevsky.livejournal.com

It seems that if the Russian government has the ability to monitor, to a very large degree, people's communications, interactions and correspondence, that it would be in their interest to keep those lines of communication open and watch them as closely as possible, and then go after the big fish.

That's very true. We saw what might be an example of that happening earlier this year when the FSB complained that the major problem on the Internet for Russia was use of foreign Internet technologies, which posed a problem because they were unmonitorable. They singled out Hotmail, Gmail, Skype. They said there's foreign encryption here, and this is a problem. That created a bit of a reaction from other sections of the Russian authorities saying that we're not censoring the Internet, and that this isn't a problem.

But you have to wonder how many people decided at that point decided: it's ok to communicate using these foreign technologies because it cannot be read by the FSB. And then a little while later they found out a little while later that that's not true, because of course Russia has the ability to intercept these communications. So the suggestion that they couldn't must simply have been either a canard designed to persuade people that they could post with impunity or some kind of political game.

So where do you expect to see these protests to go from here, either online or offline? I presume there's some gearing-up for the presidential election in March.

Yes, the presidential elections are going to be an interesting one, particularly given this new willingness on the part of a much broader section of Russian society than previously to take to the streets and make their opinion felt. However, one thing I would stress is that from what we understand, it's best not to overestimate how many people are coming out on the streets.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev famously has an iPad and also records video blogsImage: picture alliance / dpa

It is interesting that there are protest meetings and rallies in places other than Moscow and St. Petersburg, that it has spread further across Russia. But the numbers involved is not as large as some Western media might not have you believe. Just as Internet penetration is advancing at a fast pace, it is still not nearly as developed as it is in other countries.

Do you have any sense of where increased Internet activism or increased Internet monitoring will go in Russia?

It is extremely hard to predict. But one thing that we can say for certain is that this is going to build into a bigger problem both for Internet users in Russia and for the security services there. There seems to be a common perception that the FSB and the other security services have underestimated the power of social media within Russia and not taken it seriously, so it has taken them slightly by surprise.

The perception may have been previously that the only people using these kinds of tools are either journalists or full-time committed activists, which doesn't make up any significant section of the population. So the fact that more and more people are willing to join in, use them and come out on the streets as a result - may possibly, and I stress possibly - have taken the security services slightly by surprise, so they are still at this point, trying to coordinate their reaction and exactly what the Russian authorities will do about this. And let's not rule out the possibility that the answer is: nothing at all.

Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Matt Zuvela