Global internet firms operating in Russia wake up on Tuesday to a new era in Kremlin regulation.
A law now forces tech firms with Russian customers to operate local servers to handle Russian personal data. It’s the latest in a string of about 20 laws tightening government control of the internet, all put into place since President Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012.
Taken at face value the new program is aimed at protecting the privacy of Russian citizens. It’s not a uniquely Russian idea, and is something Brazil and Germany are also exploring in the post-Snowden era. Yet human rights activists fear the regulation will be misused, allowing officials to spy on citizens and suppress political activists. It comes into force days after Wikipedia was briefly blacklisted because of an article about cannabis.
“The regime is already ramping up censorship and surveillance and using it to target opposition activists, so the requiring of companies to host data on servers in the country makes it easier for the government to access that data,” says Laura Reed, a research analyst from Freedom House.
All eyes are now on Facebook, Google and Twitter, which have been meeting with the Kremlin in private to make sense of the law. At this stage it’s not clear whether they will agree to comply. Facebook simply says it won’t comment on speculation, and that “we regularly meet with government officials and have nothing more to share at this time.”
Russian investigative journalist and author Andrei Soldatov thinks the lack of transparency is concerning. “If global companies agree to talk in secret, the Russian authorities will think they are ready to cooperate in more sensitive areas,” he says.
The internet clampdown started after riots in Moscow following Putin’s re-election. The mass protests prompted the Kremlin to wake up to the power of social media.
Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated since 2012, and the situation is now being exacerbated by a weak rouble and trade sanctions imposed since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Businesses face a bureaucratic overload, foreign companies are leaving Russia (Google moved an engineering office to Poland and Microsoft closed its Moscow office), talent is fleeing. Russia’s once-flourishing internet sector is now stagnating.
Wikipedia’s run-in with the regulator made it just the latest popular Internet service to be blocked within Russia.
Critics and those affected say the regulations encourage self-censorship, often prompted by fear of fines or jail time. Roskomnadzor did not respond to several requests for comments on the issue.
Despite evidence that the Kremlin tried to manipulate Yandex.News, the search giant’s news aggregator, critics say it hasn’t really mastered the art. “They don’t know how to control Yandex, because they don’t understand how it works,” says blogger Anton Nossik, who founded Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru.
The next legal milestone will be the introduction of a “right to be forgotten” law on January 1, 2016. This will hold search engines such as Yandex and Google liable for linking to information that individuals want to be deleted, with a possible fine of up to 3 million roubles ($US45,000). Unlike the EU version of the law, the Russian model lets public figures ask for links to be removed from search results if they can show the information is inaccurate or outdated.
“If the law works, every policeman who got drunk and ran over a baby can try to sue Yandex,” says Nossik. He believes all internet businesses will end up answering to “Putin’s cronies” or going out of business.