The internet freedom in Russia is in a sad state. The Russian government is rapidly restricting freedom of movement online. Popular platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been blocked. This has created a censored version of the internet, which is reminiscent of what has been practice in China for years.
This development will have major consequences for the Russian population, experts say. The country known for its thriving internet sector has turned into a place where authorities want complete control over what happens online.
This has major implications for freedom of expression online. While that is precisely one of the most important pillars on which the worldwide web has grown. It also has major implications for independent media, which have been virtually gagged online as well as on radio and TV.
Undermined and Destroyed
“It is extremely depressing to see,” says Mariëlle Wijermars, an expert on the Russian internet and assistant professor at Maastricht University. She recalls that since the 1990s there has been a lot of innovation in the Internet and a close-knit community.
For example, in 1997 the tech company Yandex was founded in Russia, a counterpart to Google, which started a year later. Yandex became a successful internationally operating company, including a taxi and delivery service, but its future has become uncertain. “The internet is now completely undermined and destroyed by Russian politics,” Wijermars said.
From a booming industry to massive restrictions, this is how the internet changed in Russia:
Russia is isolating itself from the world wide web with this. That is a development that has been going on for some time. Three years ago, there were clear signs that Russia was trying to pry itself off the world wide web. Since then, for example, providers have been obliged to place ‘black boxes’ in their network. This means that what the Russian does online can be controlled to a high degree.
In theory, Russia could even disconnect its own internet from the rest of the world. But that’s complicated, experts say.
“The country wants to become digital sovereign,” says Wijermars. “They want to do this by only using Russian software and hardware and by reorganizing their internet infrastructure. But they are not yet successful.”
At the moment, Russia is still very tightly connected to the rest of the internet.
Olaf Kolkman also notices this. He is a senior policy and technology strategist at the Internet Society, an organization dedicated to the development of the Internet. “It will be difficult to separate from the rest of the world, he says. “Russia is still very firmly connected to the rest of the internet at the moment.”
In addition, Russia is struggling with a technological brain drain† It is estimated that 50,000 to 70,000 IT workers have already fled the country and another 70,000 to 100,000 people could be added next month. This is due to the fear of repression and there is also the chance that they will no longer receive a salary due to financial sanctions.
The tech sector in Russia was worth nearly $25 billion in 2019 and employed 1.3 million people. The question is what remains of that.
VPNs are straw
The main straw for both Russian internet users and businesses is VPN services. Via a virtual private network you can pretend that you are accessing the internet from another place in the world and the blockages are gone.
In the first month of the war, the number of VPN downloads skyrocketed:
Russia is taking steps to further block such services. According to Wijermars, it is not yet possible to say what this means in practice. “It is a clear signal, the government also sees that there is an enormous increase in use. They want to do something about that.”
It is not certain whether it will work. But the question is whether that is necessary. “It will have a deterrent effect,” says Russia expert Wijermars. So is the fact that this week Facebook and Instagram were labeled as “extremist organisations”, although it is not clear what all this will mean in practice.
Twitter is the least popular in Russia and WhatsApp the most according to figures from market researcher Insider Intelligence:
In addition, mostly young Russians with technical knowledge will look for ways to stay online and maintain contact with the outside world. That cat-and-mouse game with the government is getting more and more complicated and dangerous.