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Nikolai Gonchar at a State Duma plenary session on December 20, 2017

Next month, Russia's parliament will vote again on sweeping ‘Internet isolation’ legislation. Here’s how one lawmaker justifies the initiative.

Source: Meduza
Nikolai Gonchar at a State Duma plenary session on December 20, 2017
Nikolai Gonchar at a State Duma plenary session on December 20, 2017
Marat Abulkhatin / State Duma Press Service / TASS / Vida Press

Next month, the State Duma will likely vote on a second reading of legislation drafted by Senator Andrey Klishas that would guard against and simultaneously facilitate the isolation of the Russian Internet. In mid-February, the bill’s first reading passed with support from 334 of the Duma’s 450 deputies; 69 lawmakers didn’t vote at all, and just 47 voted against the legislation. Meduza recently attended a town hall meeting with Nikolai Gonchar, one of the deputies who voted for the bill. When we asked him about Internet isolation, Gonchar offered several questionable justifications for the legislation. Here's how they hold up against fact checking.

Meeting with the deputy

On March 16, a Meduza editor attended a town hall meeting hosted by his local State Duma representative, United Russia member Nikolai Gonchar, who’s served in the parliament since 1995. The following dialogue took place:

Question: On February 12, you voted for legislation that, it seems to me, could leave me without a job. This legislation would allow, under certain circumstances, the state to shut off the Internet. I’m concerned because my work is inextricably tied to the Internet, where I also stay in touch with friends and family. I know that the second reading will come up in April. As your constituent, I urge you to vote against it.

Nikolai Gonchar: I will absolutely vote for it.

The lawmaker’s rationale

Gonchar offered several arguments that he believes explain the necessity of the Internet isolation law. Meduza summarizes these rationalizations below.

The “Mir” payment system

An isolated Internet is like the “Mir” national payment system. Mir was created because the West threatened to disconnect Russia from SWIFT, which would disable credit card services like Visa and MasterCard in Russia. Yes, the West can still block payments through Visa and MasterCard, but Russian civil servants are now getting their salaries through the Mir system. Admittedly, Mir cards don’t work abroad. “When we created this, we stopped being afraid that they might disconnect us from SWIFT.”

Fact check. Gonchar thinks Russia’s creation of the Mir payment system is tied to the threat that Russia will be disconnected from the SWIFT interbank system. He is wrong. Western politicians did discuss cutting off Russia from SWIFT, but the cooperative society that runs SWIFT has always opposed this initiative. To protect the country against foreign sanctions, Russia’s Central Bank launched its own domestic SWIFT equivalent in 2014: the National Payment System. The Mir system was a response to threats that Visa and MasterCard payments might be blocked in Russia, which wasn’t discussed until 2015. Gonchar is also wrong when he claims that Western countries can still block these credit cards in Russia: back in May 2015, both companies started working in Russia through the National Payment Card System (operated by Mir) — even in Crimea. Temporary service disruptions remain possible for other reasons, however, such as foreign sanctions against Russia-based institutions that rely on Visa and MasterCard for bank cards. Also, contrary to what Gonchar says, the Mir payment system also operates outside Russia.

Banning American pharmaceuticals

The State Duma doesn’t just approve every ban that comes up for discussion. People were hysterical when lawmakers floated the idea of prohibiting American pharmaceutical imports. The companies that ship generics to Russia had a meltdown, running to everyone, “including the U.S. State Department,” saying that it would ruin them. “The very fact that we had this conversation [in the Duma] ended further discussions about not supplying us with American pharmaceutical components.”

Fact check. Gonchar appears to be referring to “anti-sanctions” proposed by the Duma’s leadership in the spring of 2018 (incidentally, he co-authored this draft legislation). Lawmakers wanted to ban the import of medicines (except those not manufactured domestically in Russia) and different goods from the United States and other countries guilty of “unfriendly actions” against Russia. After discussions in the Duma and strong opposition from charity organizations — before the bill was even submitted in its first reading — co-sponsors ditched the language about banning medicines. Both before and during this debate, American officials never once suggested that they planned to stop supplying drugs or pharmaceutical components to Russia. In other words, it’s hard to understand how debates in the State Duma could have influenced either U.S. state officials or generic drug importers. Moreover, the legislation ultimately adopted by lawmakers empowers the Russian government to ban any imported goods from “unfriendly” nations, including U.S. pharmaceuticals.

How the Internet really works

The entire Internet infrastructure is concentrated in Europe, Canada, and the United States. If foreign Internet traffic is suddenly shut off, the “isolation” bill will keep Russia’s system operating domestically. “We can’t let them blackmail us with threats that they’ll cut us off, if we don’t return Crimea.”

Fact check. Many of the biggest Internet exchange points are indeed in Europe and North America, but the Moscow Internet eXchange is also one of the largest in the world. While the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) had a stewardship agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department for many years, the contract ended in 2016 and the group’s functions formally transitioned to a global multistakeholder community.

Threats to shut off the Internet

Just because officials aren't openly threatening to shut off the Russian Internet doesn’t mean these threats aren’t happening through other channels. Russian lawmakers closely read The Hill, a “U.S. Congress analytical center,” which has written about several initiatives early on that later became U.S. legislation.

Fact check. The Hill isn’t an “analytical center” — it’s a privately owned daily newspaper that reports on Congressional news. The outlet’s columnists regularly write that the U.S. is doing too little to counter Russian cyberthreats, but Meduza was unable to find a single article directly calling on the U.S. to disconnect Russia from the global Internet. In a story about Russia’s “Internet isolation” legislation, The Hill published the following comment from Jake Braun, who served as the Obama administration’s Homeland Security Department liaison: “Russia is sitting there punching themselves in the face so we don’t have to.”

What should Russians expect when meeting their State Duma representatives?

Town hall meetings or office visits with federal lawmakers aren’t public debates or interviews. Most of the questions submitted at these events concern constituents’ individual problems. In other words, people come to these meetings to complain to their elected officials.

If you attend one of these meetings and manage to speak, don’t be surprised if the deputy decides to answer a question you didn’t ask. This isn’t a space for heated polemics, so trying to ask a follow-up question is likely to upset the deputy and everyone else in the room who’s waiting for their turn to talk.

It’s wise to craft your question in advance, even writing it down, so you don’t get crossed up at zero hour. The more succinct the question, the harder it is for politicians to evade when answering.

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Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Kevin Rothrock