Censorship In Russia: On The Way To The Encapsulation

Russia blocks Twitter and Facebook. However, other popular platforms are still online. What strategy are the censorship authorities pursuing?

Facebook and Twitter are blocked in Russia. The Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor justified the blocking of Facebook by saying that the network "discriminated against" Russian media. However, observers see the move as part of a broader strategy by Russian President Vladimir Putin to suppress unwelcome opinions about the war in Ukraine and restrict access to information.

In fact, in recent days in Russia, access to the websites of international media such as Deutsche Welle, the BBC and Medusa has been blocked, and the independent Russian television channel Dozhd has been banned. The fact that Facebook, the largest social network in the world, and Twitter, a channel that is particularly popular with journalists and politicians, are now being blocked fits into the picture. "The last remaining spaces for free speech and truthful information are being closed," commented Alina Polyakova, a professor in Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. 

Cyber War: Danger Of War In Cyberspace

Facebook Meta Vice President Nick Clegg wrote in a statement: "Soon millions of ordinary Russians will be deprived of reliable information and silenced." He announced that he would do everything possible to have the ban lifted. So far, at least, only Facebook itself has been affected by the ban. The group's other apps, WhatsApp and Instagram, continue to work.

The most popular services are still online

Facebook does not have the same importance in Russia as in other countries. This has to do with the fact that there is a platform called VK (formerly Vkontatke) that some call a Facebook clone. The network looks similar and works almost the same. According to an overview by the statistics provider Data Reportal, VK in Russia has about twice as many regular users as Facebook.

Twitter: A podcast tab

Instagram and WhatsApp are also significantly more popular than Facebook. YouTube is the most popular. According to the survey, more than 80 percent of people in Russia between the ages of 16 and 64 use the video service, which, like Google, belongs to the US company Alphabet, at least once a month.

So the largest foreign platforms are still accessible in Russia. Other services such as the Google search engine and the mail service GMail are not blocked either. This means that the Russian Internet is far from hermetically sealed and is still a few steps away from China's Great Firewall, for example. In China, practically all services of western digital companies are blocked. A possible explanation for the procedure is that Putin does not want to switch off the most popular platforms in order not to let the dissatisfaction of the population become too great. The journalist Mike Isaac from the New York Times is speculating in this direction . On the other hand, it is unclear whether further closures could follow in the next few days. "It is in flux," writes Isaac.

The New WhatsApp Voice Calls

In any case, it is no surprise that the Russian government is increasingly trying to control and censor the Internet. For a long time, access to digital services in Russia was relatively free, but efforts to change that began with a law passed in 2019. The core of the regulation is to direct data traffic through filters of the media supervisory authority Roskomnadzor. The New York Times reported that this system had been further developed and expanded in recent yearsAt the end of last year, for example, by installing special hardware in the server rooms of large Russian telecommunications providers. The filter system was used for the first time in spring 2021, when access to Twitter was slowed down because the network did not want to delete certain postings.

Russia has also been looking for confrontation with the other US tech companies for some time. Twitter, Google and Meta have been fined millions by a Russian court for repeatedly refusing to delete "banned content". The postings that the media regulator wanted deleted include calls for protests against the arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexej Navalny. In September last year, the media regulator threatened to block YouTube "in whole or in part" because the platform had blocked the German channels of the Russian state medium RT due to disinformation. 

Cyber War: A Digital Alliance Case Is Also Possible

Due to the war of aggression against Ukraine, the conflict with the tech companies is now coming to a head. A few days ago, Russia asked Google to block ads that allegedly spread false information about the war. Conversely, Meta, YouTube and Microsoft blocked the channels of Russian state broadcasters RT and Sputnik in the EU . Both Facebook and Google also completely shut down their advertising business in Russia.

It is not easy to simply switch off entire services

It is currently difficult to say whether this development is the starting point for Russia's digital sphere to be completely encapsulated. However, it is also questionable to what extent Russia would be able to block everything it does not like. The example of Telegram impressively shows that it is not easy to simply switch off services: In 2018, the government tried to block the messenger in the country – and failed . The reason for the attempted blocking was that Telegram refused to give the domestic secret service FSB secret keys that would make it possible to intercept encrypted communications between Telegram users.

Sanctions And Cryptocurrencies

The Russian authorities blocked the IP addresses of the Telegram servers, but the company simply switched to others. Therefore, the media regulator extended the block to millions of other IP addresses. As a result, however, many other apps and websites were suddenly offline, including those of the Kremlin Museum. Finally they gave up and admitted defeat.

The current blocking of Facebook and Twitter is not all-encompassing either. On Twitter, users report that they are in Russia and can continue to access the site using VPN services. Such statements are difficult to verify, but they are plausible. VPN networks that establish an encrypted tunnel to another network in a different location are regularly able to bypass such blocks. Another way to bypass blocks is the Tor network, which is only accessible through a special browser. The Chinese government, for example, is certainly able to block individual VPN providers or Tor network nodes, but there are a large number of them and the "golden shield", as China calls its censorship system, is not impenetrable.

According to a study by the VPN provider Atlas VPN, for which download numbers of VPN apps were evaluated, almost nine percent of the population in Russia used such a service in 2021. The proportion is likely to increase these days. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: Such paths are only open to people who know them and can use them - and for whom this is a special concern. Many others will possibly come to terms with the ban and, for example, make do with the Russian alternative VK, which is much easier for Putin to control.

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