By Paul Goble
The Kremlin’s efforts to isolate the Russian-language Internet from the rest of the world on the Chinese model are doomed because of Russia’s small size, small market, and dilatoriness in creating alternatives to Western Internet platforms as Beijing as done, Semen Novoprudsky says.
But the Russian leadership can be expected to continue to try because if views the Internet, the last media space it does not control as a threat that could give rise to a color revolution in Russia and threaten its rule, the Russian commentator says (spektr.press/cheburnet-offline-pochemu-kremlevskij-fajervol-obrechen-a-bez-nego-obrechen-sam-kreml/).
In short, Novoprudsky says, “the Kremlin firewall is doomed to fail, but without the imposition of one, the Kremlin itself is doomed” – and what may be even more important, the regime appears to recognize this even though it hasn’t come up with any new strategies but instead insists on using its old ones that clearly do not work.
That reality makes the contest between the Kremlin and its lawmakers who want to isolate the Runet from the world and the large number of Russians who want to see the free flow of information continue, some of whom went into the streets to protest on Sunday, far more important and fateful than many assume, the commentator argues.
“The chief cause of the meeting for Internet freedom,” he says “was not even the legislative prohibition on offending the Russian powers that be and state symbols or disseminating fake news as socially significant information.” Instead, it was about whether the Russian security services will make further inroads in controlling the Internet.
Exactly a month ago, the Duma approved on first reading a bill that would create what Russians are calling “’a sovereign Internet’” (svoboda.org/a/29765367.html). That measure presupposes the complete isolation of the Runet in the name of defending it against hacker attacks but in fact allows the security services to intervene more broadly than ever before.
This measure has been a long time coming. Already in April 2014, a Russian senator proposed creating a domestic Russian Internet “’in order to get out from under the wings of the US.’” That prompted the Presidential Administration to create a working group to come up with ways to expand government control over the Russian Internet space.
That group did not move quickly because some in the Presidential Administration were opposed, but by 2017, the FSB declared war against the popular messenger system Telegram of Pavel Durov. It secured a court decision imposing a massive fine on the system, but it wasn’t able to close the telegram channels down.
At the same time, the Russian authorities stepped up their efforts to block opposition sites and to create their own messengers on the Internet – the so-called “trolls” – to spread the Kremlin’s message across a platform where other voices were and remain dominant (rbc.ru/business/30/12/2017/5a465d969a79472a87a3c920).
Moscow’s goals were completely “logical,” Novoprudsky says. “The Internet is the only part of the information space where it is still possible to actively present another point of view and where the Kremlin propaganda machine does not have unqualified dominance over what Russians hear.”
Moscow chose as its role model on how to recover its position what the Chinese have done. But “the chances of Russia repeating the experience of Beijing are extremely small for economic, technological and demographic reasons,” the commentator says.
“The most important global Internet companies and social networks are ready to subordinate themselves to the demands of the Chinese authorities, but they are not prepared to do the same in Russia above all because of the enormous difference in the size of the markets of these two countries.”
Moreover, Novoprudsky points out, “China before beginning to introduce limitations on foreign Internet networks put out its own analogues to the most important world Internet services, like AliExpress for Amazon, WeChat for WhatsApp, SinaWeibo for Twitter, and so one and one. Russia has done none of this (kompravda.eu/daily/26225/3108639/)
Consequently, in its drive for control in this sector, the Kremlin starts in a hole and is unlikely to be able to climb out of it despite the fact that its failure to do so will have the most negative impact on the Putin regime’s ability to control the situation in Russia in the future.
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