The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The authoritarian assault on Internet freedom is on the move in Russia and India

Russia’s coat of arms is reflected in a laptop screen.
Russia’s coat of arms is reflected in a laptop screen. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

FOR EVERY step forward in the digital revolution comes a step back. Just last week, two retreats came in Russia and India. The potential value of the Internet, and its very freedom, is again shadowed by forces of authoritarianism and state control.

The first came Feb. 12 when the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, voted to approve on first reading a bill that would give the authorities more power to create a “sovereign Internet” — and possibly cut Russia off from the global networks. The legislation faces two more votes before it goes to the upper chamber, the Federation Council. But it marks the next step in efforts by President Vladimir Putin to control the nation’s digital pathways.

The legislation was described as necessary to defend Russia from outside cyberattacks. But the effect would be to give Russian authorities a firm hand over Internet providers and users inside the country. A few years ago, Russia required every provider to install black boxes known by the acronym SORM on their lines so the secret services could intercept communications. Assuming the legislation is approved, the next generation of black boxes would be far more ambitious, according to Andrei Soldatov, co-author of “The Red Web,” a book about the history of the Internet and the Russian authorities. New, larger black boxes would be installed by every provider and at every Internet exchange point, all of them connected to a new government center. Mr. Soldatov said the main goal is to seize control of the Internet in case the Kremlin finds it is coming “under the threat of political unrest or rebellion.”

Mr. Putin has been fearful of protest ever since a wave of demonstrations against his rule in 2011 and 2012. At the same time, the new legislation and equipment would allow Moscow to cut the country off from the rest of the global Internet, Mr. Soldatov reports, and Internet providers will be required to participate in “drills” for this eventuality.

Until now, the effort at control has faltered somewhat. One Russian government agency tried, unsuccessfully, to block the messaging app Telegram. Even with the help of the black boxes, the Russian authorities have been largely unable to crack encrypted messages. Moreover, Russia’s digital connections to the outside world are numerous and may be hard to contain. But the intent is now clear.

Meanwhile, in India, the government is advancing rules that could allow it to demand that Internet platforms remove content, and it is requiring companies to install automated screening tools.

Neither India nor Russia appears to be going as far as China’s all-encompassing Great Firewall, but these steps mark a serious retreat from the early promise of Internet freedom. They give governments too much power to police words and thoughts. A creeping assault on open expression is underway and ought to be met squarely and openly by those who believe the Internet should not be under the lock and key of Big Brother.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The fight in Russia for Internet freedom is one worth having

David Ignatius: How Russia used the Internet to perfect its dark arts

The Post’s View: Tech giants should resist Russia’s iron grip of censorship

The Post’s View: While Modi promises a ‘Digital India,’ local authorities shut down the Internet

The Post’s View: China and Russia go further in squelching Internet freedom