By Praveen Kannan and Anna Strokolyst The Hotspot Shield team believes the internet should be open and secure …
When Vladimir Putin first became the Prime Minister of Russia in 1999, approximately 2 million members of his public had access to the Internet. Fast-forward 15 years: Putin is now the country’s president, and nearly half of Russia’s 144 million people have access to the web.
At first glance, that statistic seems impressive. Russia’s Internet use has indeed grown during the last decade and a half. When you consider the fact that about 85 percent of the 319 million people in the U.S. habitually use the Web, however, it becomes clear that Russia is lagging behind the times. The reason for this could have a lot to do with Putin, a world leader who has dubbed the Internet a “CIA project” with secret intentions to harm Russia.
Putin’s Paranoia Could Break Up the Internet
If Putin succeeds in convincing his constituents that the Internet is out to get Russia, the Web as we know it could soon disintegrate into a series of independent, country-led intranets. “I think (that) is very possible,” Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov told Business Insider. Soldatov believes the concept of “national sovereignty in cyberspace” could very easily catch on with leaders of other countries, in large part because of the alarming NSA disclosures made by Edward Snowden in 2013. Significantly, Snowden now lives in Russia.
Formerly “Free” Russian Writers Silenced
For several years, Russian writers used the Internet in a way that mirrored American ideals, particularly the concept of free speech against one’s own government. Outspoken nationals like blogger Alexei Navalny enjoyed the freedom to express negative views of the Russian government without any repercussions. Last March, however, a handful of popular Russian indie websites — including Nalvany’s blog site — were shut down by the Russian government without warning or chance for recourse.
Navalny’s blog, along with several independent Russian news sites which were also shut down, had voiced negative views of Russia’s recent Crimea takeover shortly before they were yanked off the Internet. Critics of the government’s authoritarian gesture speculated that the shutdown had something to do with the writers’ negative view of events in Crimea. Alexander Podrabinek, a former Russian columnist with several dissident websites of his own, agreed, commenting that “there is an absolutely direct link with the events in Ukraine.”
Putin Offers Reward for Cracking Tor Network
It’s not surprising that a nation in which people are held accountable for their Internet activity would become interested in software like the Tor Project and virtual private networks (VPNs), which protects individuals’ anonymity online. In Russia, Tor and other internet privacy protection programs (like Hotspot Shield VPN) are quickly gaining popularity with citizens who believe privacy is a human right and want to shield their privacy from the government’s prying eyes.
Putin knows his citizens are going behind his back to protect their privacy, and he’s offered a reward of $110,000 to the person who can “crack the code” of Tor, thereby disabling Russian access to the software. The president’s actions can be attributed, at least in part, to his disdain for the liberal “Putin Must Go!” campaign that has echoed throughout Russia for the last four years. More Internet freedom for Russians could very well mean more muscle behind the “Putin Must Go!” campaign.
“Bloggers Law” Meant to Frighten Dissidents
Those who don’t use Tor remain vulnerable to the scrutiny of the Russian government. Due to the nature of their work, bloggers and journalists are particularly exposed. Last May, Putin instigated the “Bloggers Law,” a ruling that all bloggers in Russia with more than 3,000 daily followers must register their name and home address with the government. All such blogs are now held to the same truth-telling standard as national Russian newspapers are. According to the law, any Russian blogger found guilty of spreading false information will face heavy fines and/or other punishments.
Galina Arapova, an expert on Russian law, said that this ruling is meant to “cut the number of critical voices” on the country’s digital media landscape. Those who would have otherwise shared negative opinions or facts about Russian government will be less likely to do so because they’ll be scared to do so.
Social Media Sites Now Burdened With Putin’s Requirements
Putin is covering his bases when it comes to keeping tabs on dissident Russian nationals. Not only is he going after bloggers and Tor software users, he’s also targeting citizens who use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Last July, Putin signed a law requiring major media sites used by Russians to keep six months’ worth of Russian user data on their servers at all times. Sites affected by Putin’s law include Google, Facebook, and Twitter. If the companies don’t follow Putin’s demands, they will cease to operate in Russia in September of 2016.
This law sounds dramatic and shocking, but critics have equated it to the NSA’s tactic of spying on international citizens via social media in the U.S. – a fact leaked by Snowden last year. Nevertheless, most Westerners wince at Putin’s outrageous social media demands and fear that Russia is trying to wield more control over Internet affairs than it rightfully should.
Putin has had a hand in Russian government for the last 15 years. He’s a persuasive political figure with an 84 percent approval rating. When a national leader as powerful and popular as Putin promotes Internet censorship, it garners the attention of the rest of the world. Americans who pride themselves on freedom of speech are particularly baffled and concerned by the activities of Putin, as well as those in his country who rally around him. Only time will tell what becomes of Putin’s Internet censorship efforts and the citizens who are affected by these limitations.