The logic of Russian Internet censorship

March 16

This is a guest post by Steven Wilson, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On Thursday, in advance of scheduled protests over Sunday’s Crimean secession referendum, Russians reported that their Internet service providers (ISPs) were blocking several opposition Web sitesGrani.ru, Kasparov.ru, EJ.ru, echo.msk.ru and navalny.livejournal.com. The first three are opposition news sites, the fourth the Web site of Echo Moskvy (a radio station that is one of the last sources of free media in Russia), and the fifth is the blog of opposition political figure Alexei Navalny. Curiously, the bans on the latter two were lifted late Friday, raising the question of Russia’s motivations: Why shut down five opposition sites but allow the two most significant ones back up within 24 hours? Some initial answers can be found in the technical methods the government used, and the physical geography of the Internet in Russia.

Generally, when Russia orders ISP level blocking, the order originates from either Roskomnadzor (roughly equivalent to the Federal Communications Commission) or the FSKN (roughly equivalent to the Drug Enforcement Agency). The former has issued 270 bans over the past two years (targeting spam and pornography), while the latter has issued some 2,000 (targeting illegal drugs). But this order was issued by the prosecutor general, which has only issued 22 such bans, all in the past six weeks. Unofficial tracking of Russian blocks can be found on antizapret.info. In addition, although ISPs immediately began blocking the domains, they are not in the official Roskomnadzor database of banned addresses.

Echo Moskvy was specifically warned to remove their links to Navalny’s blog because it contained “extremist activity,” and requested clarification but received no response. Once they removed the links the block was lifted. Strangely, the block on navalny.livejournal.com appears to have been lifted, despite the fact that its content appears unaltered. But some Russians still report difficulty reaching it.

Serious domain blocking is a war of attrition, with additional blocking orders issued as proxy servers that allow users to go around the block are discovered. No blocking orders were issued for the proxy sites providing access to the three still blocked sites. This was not a serious attempt to shutdown opposition Web sites so much as a political statement. By using blocking mechanisms normally reserved for flagging criminal activity, the regime put a gloss of legal legitimacy on the affair.

So why would the Kremlin want Navalny’s blog and Echo Moskvy back up? Because it has the potential to benefit from them.

While two of the other three sites are located on servers outside of Russia (EJ.ru is in Amsterdam, Kasparov.ru in Connecticut, and Grani.ru in Moscow), Echo Moskvy is physically located in Moscow: Their people, the station, and even their servers. If, as a dictator you concede that an opposition is going to exist despite your best efforts, then the best sort of opposition is one over which you can exert complete physical control. It is certainly within the regime’s power to crush Echo Moskvy, but it can only do so once, and that could be a powerful card to play if Russian President Vladimir Putin finds himself in an existential political crisis at some point.

Navalny’s blog on LiveJournal is a more complicated, but thoroughly interesting political tale. Though its popularity has waned in the West since its heyday of a decade ago, LiveJournal has gradually become the primary blogging platform for Russians (hosting some 700,000 Russian blogs), including those of many opposition figures. In 2007, SUP Media, a Russian company, bought LiveJournal outright, a controversial move given SUP Media’s connections with Russian state security.

On several occasions in the last few years, LiveJournal has been targeted with denial of service attacks, which are intentional spikes of overwhelming network traffic in order to render a Web site inaccessible. Due to the fact that no one credibly claims responsibility for these events, and that they have a distinct correlation with important political events like elections or show trials, there is widespread speculation that the Kremlin is behind the attacks.

LiveJournal has only been taken down explicitly twice to my knowledge. Last July, on the morning of the Navalny verdict, the entire site was suddenly taken down with a notice of “Planned Maintenance.” And the blocking of Navalny’s blog on LiveJournal Thursday was the only time it had been specifically taken down.

The strategic problem is that the actual servers hosting LiveJournal are still physically in the United States (some in southern California, some in Montana), an artifact of the company’s American origins. Russia’s general avoidance of directly interfering with LiveJournal can be traced to that niggling problem of geography. The Kremlin has the power (and arguably the legal right) to order SUP Media to order its subsidiary of LiveJournal to take down its servers or implement censorship at any time. But doing so would have two effects. First, it would likely drive opposition writers to any number of other Web sites, whereas they are currently operating on something directly controllable by the Russian regime. Using a gentle hand when it comes to LiveJournal now could pay dividends to the regime down the road if, again, it finds itself in the midst of a real political crisis.

In addition, directly intervening with LiveJournal risks drawing the attention of Americans, who have a pesky attachment to the principle of free speech, a whole lot of computer experts, and physical access to LiveJournal’s servers. If the Kremlin were to order LiveJournal to shut down or implement censorship too blatantly, President Obama could quite easily order the local FBI field office to seize the server facility and get it back in working order. It’s likely to be a card that the White House could only play once, but it’s a trump card that most political analysts don’t seem to know is even part of the deck. And so long as Russia doesn’t force America to play that card in a non-crisis, the Kremlin will retain its ability to shut down LiveJournal at a critical moment of a real crisis.

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