The FSB says it’s trying to curb extremism online — but it’s also muting foreign and dissenting voices.
“Fighting terrorism” is how the Kremlin explains its latest effort to broaden its surveillance of Russian society and increase its control over internet content. But the program is also Moscow’s latest step toward digital isolationism.
“For us professionals, it has long been obvious that cyberspace should be under the control of the competent authorities,” Sergei Smirnov, the First Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service of Russia, or FSB, told state-run media. “Without this, we can’t guarantee proper information security and successfully counter modern terrorist threats.”
Smirnov spoke after a meeting of a high-level working group that includes China, Pakistan, and some former Soviet republics, called RATS SCO. He said the group had decided to expand governmental control over the internet in their respective countries.
He also said the members had created “a secure communication channel” for the group’s members. “This issue is very important for us,” he said.
Last year, Russia began working to establish an entirely separate internet domain directory for itself and Brazil, India, China, and South Africa. Russia also began work on a sort of backup internet internally that would allow the Kremlin to disconnect from the world’s networks in response to a perceived threat.
One Russia watcher said that the move was really about limiting the influence of pro-Western voices.
Sam Bendett, a researcher at the CNA Corporation and a Fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, said the Kremlin has been keenly concerned about “‘adversarial’ information warfare initiatives for several years. “Therefore, efforts to control it or affect the information space in its favor are front and center,”’ he said.
Like of much Russia’s internet isolationism, the move reflects what the Kremlin gleaned from the Arab Spring and older pro-democracy movements, Bendett said “One of the biggest lessons learned from Syria, and from the Arab Spring writ large, was the need for Russia to have more robust information warfare capabilities, especially for its military. Despite Western concerns that Russian [information operations, or IO] are very successful, Russians themselves tend to think that it’s the IO against their interests that is gaining significant steam. So, once again, Smirnov’s comments underscore the need to control the cyberspace in favor of Russia.”
The FSB, a descendant of the Soviet KGB, is perhaps best known in the West as one of the key actors who hacked the DNC in 2015 and 2016. But they also have broad authority over digital life in Russia, with a mandate to examine the source code of software products sold or used across the country.