Russia Mulls a Digital Iron Curtain

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service/AP

Moscow wants to clamp down on the once-freewheeling Russian Internet. Which country's example might it follow?

An impossibly cute creature from a 1966 Soviet book and cartoon has recently found himself on the periphery of discussions about the Kremlin's growing ambitions to exercise greater control over domestic Internet use. In late April, a member of Russia's upper house of parliament proposed creating a purely domestic Internet—inaccessible from abroad with the exception, perhaps, of members of a Russian-led Customs Union—that would be named after a furry character called Cheburashka.

And while the senator, Maksim Kavdzharadze, later clarified that his proposal would only apply to scientific information, the use of Cheburashka as a symbol for the Kremlin's efforts to create a more "sovereign" Internet is apt. The beast in Eduard Uspensky's story, who is theretofore unaware of humans, winds up in a crate of oranges and must adjust to a new reality after tumbling out in a Moscow shop.

In Russia, it is unclear how users will react to the new reality being created around an Internet that was once widely free. In April, the State Duma passed legislation that would require non-Russian tech companies to store all domestic data within Russia for at least six months. And Kommersant, a well-regarded newspaper, reported that a commission set up by Russian President Vladimir Putin is recommending a system that would allow the government to filter and access all content passing through Russian servers.

It is still unclear whether major companies like Google and Facebook will agree to the expensive task of placing servers and data-storage centers inside Russia—or if Moscow will follow through with blocking access to the sites if they do not. Whatever he decides to do, Putin is representative of an accelerated push by autocratic leaders worldwide to reign in the unwieldy Internet space. But doing so once populations have already experienced the value and convenience of open access can be difficult.

Here's a look below at some case studies of web censorship—ranging from the most extreme version of a truly "sovereign" web to one of evolving ad-hoc efforts to chip away at Internet freedom.

All of these censorship regimes exist with varying degrees of coerced self-censorship brought about by threats of punishment for posting content deemed immoral or harmful to the state. Users and companies are aware that their online activity may be monitored at any time and themselves become players in creating a censorship environment.

North Korea's 'Walled Garden'

Operating as a nationwide intranet, a truly sovereign system can only be accessed from within the state. The one standout "success" in this complete censorship regime is North Korea's Kwangmyong (Bright) network. There is little information about the network because few people outside the so-called "hermit kingdom" have been able to access it. But according to a report by the AP news agency, the system contains up to 5,500 websites that are mostly associated with universities and government-run entities.

This type of network is one that can really only work in places where there is a virtual blockade on information from the outside world, such as North Korea or Cuba, which has a similar system. This type of domestic intranet environment is also difficult to establish in all but the most oppressive societies because experience with the free-wheeling way the Internet works already exists.

China's Great Firewall

China's "Golden Shield" project, which blocks and filters content deemed harmful by the ruling Communist Party, has been largely successful because the government decided early on that the Internet was something that needed to be controlled. As Internet use grew rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century, homegrown sites that accepted the authorities' censorship rules—and assisted in blocking content—became the norm. While Western companies have struggled to or refused to adapt to the rules governing content-filtering, domestic companies like Baidu, the country's largest search engine, have thrived.

Chinese users wishing to access blocked sites can use proxies, which provide access to third-party servers to avoid censors, but because the web already caters to the domestic audiences, most users will not go through the effort of doing so.

Iran's 'Halal' Network

Iran's censorship of the Internet increased markedly following disputed elections in 2009 that saw thousands of anti-government protesters flood the streets of Tehran. Access to Western sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were cut off and, in 2011, Iran began work on a "halal" network that would exist only within the country. The plan, according to one minister, was that users would only be able to access content that maintained the appropriate "ethical and moral level." 

Although Tehran says it's still working on this intranet, three years later the country continues to rely on censors to blacklist and filter websites deemed threatening to the Islamic republic. Creating an entirely new system without an already existing infrastructure, like in China, has proven to be difficult. And many users still manage to access Western social networking sites through proxies.

The Evolving Turkish Model

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in an ongoing battle against the "dark forces" of the Internet since anti-government protests swept the country last June. He went on the attack in early 2014 when secret audio recordings were posted online that appeared to incriminate his family in corruption. His government ordered Twitter and YouTube blocked in March. Despite a court order to reverse Erdogan's edict, YouTube is reportedly still inaccessible. Erdogan has viewed the recent success of his party in municipal elections as a mandate to continue the Internet crackdown. Turkey's spy agency was given increased power to access users' data and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have begun to use technology similar to that being used in China to scan and log online activity.

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At first glance, Russia might seem an appropriate candidate for a Chinese-style firewall. Homegrown Russian sites like the Yandex search engine and Vkontakte, a social network, have larger shares of the Russian market than their Western competitors. But these same companies owe some of their success to foreign practices and investment.

Yandex is registered in the Netherlands and is traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange in New York. VKontakte's founder fled Russia in April after he said he was forced into giving up his shares in the company to figures close to the Kremlin. Leaders at both companies have complained about the new Internet legislation in Russia potentially harming their businesses.

Up until now, Russia has largely targeted individual websites and bloggers, like opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, with shutdowns or punishments. But it seems clear the Kremlin wants to do more. Although a "sovereign Internet" may be the Kremlin's ideal, a layered approach—similar to that seen in Turkey—where Internet freedoms are slowly stripped away, may be the most likely scenario.

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