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‘Listen, everybody knows who controls the Internet’ Russian Internet Governance Forum addresses ‘digital sovereignty’

Source: Meduza
Photo: Svetlana Holyavchuk / Interpress / PhotoXPress

This week, Moscow held the sixth annual Russian Internet Governance Forum, a gathering of officials, businesspeople, and other Web “stakeholders” to discuss Internet regulation. The event followed recent news that the Minister of Communications, Nikolai Nikiforov, plans to release a report about “the sovereignty of the Russian Internet.” Nearly every expert and state official who spoke at the forum voiced their support for this concept of “sovereignty.” Meduza’s special correspondent Daniil Turovsky attended the event to see what it was all about.

In the conference room of the Lotte Hotel, a pink web appears on the big screen, as a narrator tells the audience, “The Internet is being sanctioned and censored, and we need to have an interstate dialogue.” The host, Leonid Todorov, an information security expert, takes the stage, saying, “In the last year a great many changes have taken place in our country and around our country. Many of these changes aren’t the ones we hoped to see. And some of these changes affect the Internet.” With that, Todorov starts inviting the first panelists to the stage.

Lyudmila Bokova, head of the commission on information policy in the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament)

“The debate about regulating the Internet now goes beyond the expert community, following what President Putin said in June [when he argued that the Internet ‘should be subject to some form of regulation’]. After that, we began training for a potential shutdown of [Russia’s] Internet. This preparation is important because the security of our citizens is important. Today, the Internet is a great place to use technology to manipulate public opinion.

“The Internet’s architecture doesn’t lend itself to comprehensive regulation, but some moderate regulatory efforts are needed. Many people don’t seriously consider the possibility that the Russian segment of the Internet could be cut off from the global infrastructure, but I think we need to prepare for this. Transferring complete control of the RuNet to Russia is necessary to our national security.”

Rashid Ismailov, Russia's Deputy Minister of Communications, supported Bokova’s comments, saying, “Any disruption in the Web could lead to societal collapse.” The Internet, he added, “needs to hold up against external interference.”

The sixth annual Russian Internet Governance Forum in Moscow.
Yekaterina Istratiy

Ilya Massukh, head of the Information Democracy Foundation (a nonprofit organization that manages, among other things, the federal government’s online platform for citizen petitions)

“I include Russia among the developed countries, but there are other states that get very involved in politics on the Internet. I’m talking about the nations of the Third World, like Egypt, which shut off Twitter, Turkey, which has shut off various services, and Saudi Arabia, of course. What am I getting at? A lot has changed in the last year. Joining the countries that meddle in politics online is the United States—the Internet’s birthplace. In January this year, Obama ordered sanctions that targeted Crimea [banning American online services, like Amazon, PayPal, and Apple’s App Store, from operating for individuals residing on the disputed peninsula]. Isn’t it strange that a country claiming to defend freedom suddenly imposes territorial sanctions?

“The whole problem here is this: if the governments in Turkey, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia impose restrictions on the Internet, citizens can resist, either in elections or with demonstrations. But what can the people of Crimea do? Are they supposed to go to war? Obama’s sanctions are a harbinger. Next time, they’ll shut off something else. The Internet was created in the United States and it’s still regulated from there, so we can expect continued discrimination on this territorial principle.”

Massukh also said, based on his experience working with the federal government’s online platform for citizen petitions, he’s found that non-anonymous Internet users swear less and more rarely violate Russia’s laws against extremism. “What does this mean? It means the era of anonymity must end. This is for the best,” he explained (though the next panel of foreign experts would soon testify to the exact opposite, saying that the Internet is rapidly becoming more anonymous, thanks to the development of secure protocols and traffic encryption).

Massukh invited the audience to sign a joint statement drawing attention to the “situation of discrimination against Internet users created by US Executive Order 13685 [‘Blocking Property of Certain Persons and Prohibiting Certain Transactions With Respect to the Crimea Region of Ukraine’].” Rashid Ismailov then joined the initiative, asking more people in the crowd to sign the petition. “We need to be united about events in Crimea, and Internet users’ rights must be observed,” he said.

On a table in the conference room, Massukh left copy of the petition. Fewer than a dozen people had signed it.

Ruslan Gattarov at the sixth annual Russian Internet Governance Forum in Moscow.
Alexander Zhidchenko

Ruslan Gattarov, former pro-Kremlin youth movement activist in Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), and current lieutenant governor of Chelyabinsk

“Listen, everybody knows who controls the Internet. And now, in Crimea, they’ve proved it once again. Both the Federation Council and I believe that it should be the Russian people and the Russian state controlling our Internet—not some foreign power. I really enjoyed today’s speech by the Communications Ministry’s representative because lately the Communications Ministry has become less liberal—and I mean that in the best sense. It’s started using the phrase “digital sovereignty” [and talking about] the need for fighting cyber-terrorism.

“Two years ago, when I said they might ban us, or hack us, or shut us down, people smirked at me. They’re not smirking anymore. Now I listen to [Communications Minister Nikolai] Nikiforov and I rejoice.

“We all know the West never rests. They’re conducting military exercises on our borders with experts dug in inside Estonia. Great Britain wants to use social networks in its information war. Maybe we do the same thing, but at least we don’t talk about it publicly.

“I’m certain there won't be any nuclear war, but I believe there’s a big cyber-war coming, and a conventional war will follow to finish the job.

“I know that I’m happy to see that the RuNet has already begun improving its safety. We’re preparing duplicate structures. eBay has already said that it’s ready to store user data inside Russia [in compliance with a new federal law, which takes effect on September 1, 2015, requiring all online user data to be stored on servers on Russian soil]. And we’re ready to build large data-centers in Chelyabinsk. Take it from me: all your data will be safe. I’m confident that Russia can provide its own digital sovereignty.”

Dmitry Marinichev, the Kremlin’s Internet ombudsman

“Today the Internet is a kind of religion. Before it became an everyday feature of life, governments and authorities didn’t think very hard about what the Internet really is. It’s a bit like the history of the Roman Empire and Christianity: now every state needs to find its religion. The world today is split into a few different churches professing the same religion, but each calls it something different.

"I’m strongly opposed to the segmentation of the Web, which could have disastrous consequences for the whole world. The Internet isn’t the right place for this. I’ll say it again: it’s impossible to make political decisions based on Ohm's law. Yes, we can store and control user data in Russia, but what does this give us, other than more fences around yet another country?"


Daniil Turovsky


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