How Vladimir Putin Has Cracked Down on Russia's Internet

Putin with computer
Russia's Vladimir Putin presents a computer to Dasha Varfolomeyeva in the village of Tugnui during his visit to the Siberian republic of Buryatia on July 1, 2011. Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool/Reuters

Russia President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that blocks websites and internet services offering Russians a loophole into viewing content banned in their country.

The law, signed by Putin Saturday and published by the government Sunday, claims to combat the spread of extremism but once again shuts down an avenue used by many Russians to circumvent their increasingly regulated internet.

Last year, Russia flagged more Google content as "inappropriate" than all other governments combined.

This law is the latest of several moves in which Putin, who recently rekindled a Soviet conspiracy theory about the internet being a “CIA project,” has handed internet censors sweeping powers. Newsweek takes a closer look at the Kremlin's crackdown on the internet.

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Russia’s Web Blacklist

One of the first laws to receive Putin’s signature upon his 2012 return to the presidency was an important amendment to the Act for Information. The law, pushed through parliament with the professed intention of protecting children from harmful content online, gave sweeping new powers to Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet watchdog, which could now force websites offline without a court order.

Since then, Reddit, Wikipedia and PornHub have found themselves on the list and been forced to remove any offending content. Putin critics Gary Kasparov and Alexei Navalny also have had their blogs blacklisted by Roskomnadzor for allegedly encouraging illegal activity.

Perhaps Dyeti-404, an online support group for LGBT youths, also went down in 2015 due to posts discussing suicidal feelings among children. Its owners also claimed they had been fined for violating Russia’s stringent laws on “gay propaganda”—which amounts to any public discussions of homosexuality around minors that Russia’s conservative establishment considers advocacy.

Blogger’s Law

For decades, Russia’s press rested entirely in the hands of the Soviet state, so regulating traditional media is nothing new for Russian censors. Television is dominated by state-run news channels, and new legislation against foreign-majority ownership of news outlets has threatened non-Kremlin-friendly publications. With the rising popularity of digital media, however, Navalny, Kasparov and others have galvanized supporters online.

After a surge in protests during his election, Putin signed a law in 2014 to bridge the gap between the strongly regulated traditional media and the loosely regulated internet. Among the law's key provisions is equating any blog with more than 3,000 readers to a news outlet, making it legally liable as one, and requesting that any website of similar popularity store all its Russian users’ data on Russian soil.

This meant that even if temporarily, large U.S. corporations that stored the data of Russian users had to regularly install the servers carrying that information within Russian authorities’ jurisdiction.

Related: How Google turned Russia into Ukraine’s “Mordor” after a glitch

As of yet the law has not been enforced against Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, though Russian internet guru Anton Nossik told Reuters that creating a "quasi-legal pretext to close Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all other services" was precisely the motivation for the law.

"The ultimate goal is to shut mouths, enforce censorship in the country and shape a situation where Internet business would not be able to exist and function properly," he said.

The law has already coerced encrypted messenger service Telegram—a tool specifically designed by Russian developers to circumvent the Kremlin’s security forces—to comply. Roskomnadzor first asked for Telegram’s compliance, and when the company refused, Russia’s federal security forces announced the app had been used in April’s metro bombing in St. Petersburg and would be blocked if it did not comply.

Yarovaya Law

The most recent legal restriction, and arguably one of Russia’s most controversial laws of the last half decade, the so-called Yarovaya Law, has earned the soubriquet the "Big Brother" law.

Submitted by lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, the law not only stretches the scope for state surveillance online but also mandates Russian internet users to denounce alleged criminal activity. Internet users who fail to notify authorities if they spot “reliable” information about planned extremist attacks, hijackings and any illegal armed activity face a possible jail sentence. Expressing approval for “terrorism” online can also land someone up to seven years in prison.

Meanwhile, telecoms firms and internet providers are equally under pressure, as they are obliged to help security services by keeping records of all communications for six months, regardless of whether their current infrastructure can accommodate it. They also must help security services decode encrypted messenger services, something which they typically do not have the keys for.

Putin signed the law last summer, though details of its implementation are still being debated. Russia’s upper house of parliament has debated delaying the implementation of telecom regulation until 2023, as companies have complained they physically cannot comply with the storage demands.