Russia Uses Snowden to Crack Down on Internet

Russia seeking tighter Internet controls after NSA leaks

Vladimir Putin / AP
• July 10, 2013 5:00 am


Russia’s government is seeking to tighten controls over the Internet in the aftermath of disclosures about National Security Agency (NSA) data collection programs.

Russian officials in recent weeks issued statements that U.S. officials say are designed to muster public support for increased restrictions on the Internet.

The Russian officials are using alleged violations of online privacy by NSA’s PRISM metadata collection program and other electronic spying.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the metadata collection program that gathered hundreds of millions of telephone records as part of a program to find terrorists and spies.

The Russian push has raised concerns among some U.S. officials who see the effort as part of Moscow’s increasing anti-democratic slant.

The anti-Internet freedom push appears to be part of a larger effort by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin to crack down on media, especially news outlets that have become key resource for Russia’s shrinking opposition protest movement.

Under Putin, former KGB intelligence and security officials have been placed in key positions throughout the Russian government. The Soviet-era political police and intelligence services have been renamed the SVR foreign spy service and the FSB domestic security service.

The services have been linked to attacks on journalists, including assassinations.

Also under the Putin government, Russia policy has shifted further to anti-U.S. positions.

U.S. officials said recent statements by senior Russian officials are signs that Moscow is moving to take greater government control over the Internet.

For example, Sergei Zhelezhyak, deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, last month called for an investigation of what he termed "unlawful access to Russian citizens' personal data by U.S. companies and intelligence services."

Zhelezhyak is calling for a prohibition on storing Russian government and Russians’ personal data on foreign servers. The deputy speaker claimed that Russia should assert its "digital sovereignty" over the data.

A second official, Ruslan Gattarov, head of the Federation Council's Information Policy Committee, is supporting the plan to limit the placing of Russian data on foreign servers. Gattarov said the policy would allow Russian security agencies to monitor servers for leaks.

Gattarov told Ekho Moskvy Radio on June 19 that Russia should investigate reports that U.S. intelligence agencies have access to Google web servers. He also called for an international conference of states that signed an agreement on personal data protection.

A third official, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights commissioner, said Moscow plans to take protective measures to plug leaks of online national security information.

U.S. officials said the officials’ comments are part of a campaign by Moscow to use the disclosures from Snowden to warn that social media poses national security dangers.

Russian democratic opposition forces rely heavily on social media, including Facebook and its Russian equivalent VK, to communicate and advocate for democratic political reform. The protest movement emerged out of the contested December 2011 State Duma elections.

FSB Director Aleksander Bortnikov stated in early June that social networks in Russia are a source of "extremist ideas" and that regime opponents are engaged in "ideological" warfare against the state.

And Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin last month said social networks were part of "cyber wars" against Russia.

Internet freedom activists in Russia are opposing steps taken already by the Putin administration, including an anti-piracy bill drafted last month that would give authorities new power to block Internet sites alleged to be engaged in copyright infringement.

If passed into law, the bill could be used by the government against pro-democracy activists, using copyright infringement as a pretext.

Russia also passed last year a new blacklisting law that allows authorities to shut down websites deemed threatening to minors. Democracy activists say that law will be used to expand government controls over the Internet.

Russian pro-democracy activist Garry Kasparov said the Internet is a complication for Putin because many Russians depend on it and censoring it may create a backlash. "The opposition relies on it for news and for communication, but as internet usage grows, Putin may respond to the threat, and his regime has already created the legal and technical framework" for more controls, Kasparov said in an email.

"As for Snowden, I don't know if this will impact Putin's internet agenda or just provide another excuse for more crackdowns," he said. "Really he doesn't even bother with excuses in this phase of his regime. But it's possible."

For example, the government shut down sites, including opposition political sites. The official site shutdown lists started out going after sites about drugs or suicide.

"This is how they work, step by step," Kasparov said.

Freedom House, the New York-based non-governmental organization, said in a report made public in September that Russia’s Internet remains "a relatively unobstructed domain of free expression."

However, the freedom-monitoring group warned that tighter controls on the Internet in Russia are expected.

Russia’s government has engaged in harassing and jailing opposition, hacking into opposition blogs, and using distributed denial of service electronic attacks against site perceived as anti-government, the group said.

Freedom House concluded that with the worsening of what it termed "the Kremlin’s contentious relationship with civil society, Internet controls "appear likely to increase."

Meanwhile, officials said the Russian intelligence services are also using the Snowden case to whip up anti-American sentiment in Russia.

The SVR has been using state-controlled media to boost signatures on an online White House petition calling for a pardon for Snowden.

Officials said the Russian intelligence active measures and influence campaign were linked to a pro-Kremlin activist named Nikolai Starikov, who has appeared in films made by the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, which the U.S. government has linked to the SVR.

Starikov denied he is associated with the SVR. "I do not have anything to do with intelligence agencies of Russia, and I am very pleased that my modest contribution to the Russian public awareness about what is happening in the world is estimated [by the] staff of Western intelligence agencies," he told the Washington Times.

Russia proposed giving the United Nations, instead of the United States, control over the Internet at a November U.N. conference on telecommunications in Dubai.

The proposal to the World Conference on International Telecommunications includes a provision that would place "IP-based networks" under U.N. control.

The Russian proposal would amend the U.N. treaty, called the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR), that currently is limited to regulating international telecommunications services.

China and other non-democratic states are backing the Russian plan.

The Obama administration is opposing the plan as are major U.S. data companies, including Google.

"A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet," Google said in a statement on a website it created called Take Action. "The ITU is the wrong place to make decisions about the future of the Internet."

According to Google, governments passed 19 new laws that threaten Internet freedom in the past several years.

Published under: Russia