Will the Russian Internet look like China’s “Great Firewall”?

Russia’s ban on Facebook and Instagram after declaring the activities of the sites’ parent company, Meta Platforms, as ‘extremist’ is part of a growing crackdown on free speech inside the country since the start of Moscow’s war with Ukraine last month.

The full implications of the March 21 Moscow court ruling are unclear, and the case stems in part from Meta’s decision earlier this month to allow certain calls for violence against Russian soldiers and President Vladimir Putin on his platforms.

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But the decision is part of a wider campaign by the Kremlin against big tech and ongoing efforts to control the flow of information that has accelerated since Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.

In addition to targeting foreign platforms, the Kremlin has also cracked down on foreign media outlets, leading many people to withdraw from the country. (RFE/RL suspended its operations in the country on March 4.) Russian authorities have also passed new laws that criminalize public statements about Ukraine that do not align with the Kremlin’s official view of what it calls “the special military operation.”

The growing crackdown could have major implications for the future of civil society and an open internet inside Russia and echoes the start of the extensive internet censorship system built inside China known as the “Great Firewall”.

Initially, the Chinese firewall only blocked a handful of Chinese-language anti-communist websites and it was relatively easy to bypass the blocking and access banned sites, but its reach has since grown into a broader mechanism. designed to restrict all types of content, identify and locate individuals, and provide immediate access to personal records.

Could the future of the Russian Internet look more like the Chinese system? To find out more, RFE/RL spoke to Jessica Brandtfellow at the Brookings Institution who studies digital authoritarianism and disinformation in Russia and China.

RFE/RL: Russia has declared that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is an “extremist organization”. What does this mean for the future of the country’s information space and free access to information inside Russia?

Jessica Brandt: Russia has been ranked at the bottom of the scale of openness measures for some time, but its recent measures to restrict the activities of Western social media platforms and to suppress expressions of dissent have really hurt the freedom of information in Russia.

“China has what is called the ‘Great Firewall’ [and] China is really trying to dominate digital distribution channels [with] their own national champions,” says Brandt.

I think it is important to note that Russia [has generally] been quite measured — or calculating — in the way it has continued its crackdown on big tech. For example, he blocked Facebook and Instagram but made exceptions for WhatsApp, and he threatened Google but kept YouTube relatively unrestricted. Today, WhatsApp and YouTube are much more frequently used channels by the Russian population for coordination and information sharing than, for example, Facebook and YouTube.

RFE/RL: So where does that mean Russia is heading? Do you think Russia is getting closer to China and converging with the censorship and restrictions that we saw there? Russian officials have often raised the idea of ​​a sovereign Internet and this crisis seems to mark an important moment. Could Russia have its own version of the “Great Firewall”?

Brandt: Russia has long had a tightly controlled information space, but it [still] a very different picture from that of China. There have been independent media in Russia [and] there is access to western social media platforms. This is simply not the case in China. I think the recent moves are taking [Russia] closer to the Chinese model, but I think there are still important differences.

There’s a lot of talk about how Moscow’s crackdown on big tech is accelerating the breakup of the internet – and I think it is – but right now what we’re seeing is that [it’s] bursting primarily at the content layer, which is very different from bursting at the Internet’s core architecture type.

China has really paved this way and Russia may seek to follow it, but I think there are many reasons to believe that they are not quite capable of doing so at the moment. It simply doesn’t have the chip capability, and recent moves to sanction Russia will make it even more difficult for it to access the technology it needs to do so.

So I think there are ways to bring Russia down the Chinese path, but I think there are still differences.

RFE/RL: What are some of these differences?

Brandt: Russia has put in place a set of laws in recent weeks that would criminalize so-called disinformation about the conflict with Ukraine, and what we’re really talking about here is [actually] criminalizing the use of the word “war”, the use of the word “invasion”. This is not about spreading misinformation. It’s about [limiting] the ability to speak truth to power and freedom of expression.

So [the Russian government] has closed the space to public conversation and dissent, but not entirely as China has done.

People attend an opposition rally in Moscow in March 2019 to protest against internet censorship.

People attend an opposition rally in Moscow in March 2019 to protest against internet censorship.

China has what is called the “Great Firewall” [and] China is really trying to dominate digital distribution channels [with] its own national champions and its own widely used social media platforms. Russia has some, but not on the same scale.

So I think part of that [gap] is the technological prowess that China possesses and [how] this [designed] its early internet towards that end.

Today Russia can see the benefits [of China’s model] because I think Putin, a lot like [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping], is primarily concerned with the stability of the regime and the preservation of its own grip on power. I think he sees very well the value of a tightly controlled information space, but he doesn’t have the technological capacity to make it happen. [Also] it has a population that expects a certain space to access Western sources of information and to communicate with each other.

RFE/RL: Russia is becoming more isolated and more authoritarian following the war in Ukraine. When it comes to technology, despite its claims of autonomy, it relies heavily on Western technology for a whole host of industries, but especially for social media and communications. Does this inevitably mean that Russia will have to turn to Chinese alternatives as well as standards and models in the future?

Brandt: I think it’s very likely that this series of events will increase Russia’s reliance on China for things like technology, but also just to evade sanctions.

RFE/RL: It seems like Beijing and Moscow are getting closer politically and economically, and the same seems to be happening with the kinds of propaganda and misinformation we see being spread by both the country’s officials and state media. . I am thinking, in particular, of the way Chinese officials and media have taken up the conspiracy theory that the United States is developing biological weapons in laboratories in Ukraine, which had been a common thread in Russian propaganda even before the war, but which has started to be pushed again lately. weeks. What do you think ? Is this a sign of increasing coordination or something else?

Mark : Watch China’s information strategy here [with spreading disinformation and propaganda] was fascinating because they really walk a tightrope. On the one hand, they have been unwilling to condemn Russia’s actions and are quite willing to lay the blame for the conflict on the feet of the United States and NATO, while still refusing to tolerate the activities of Russia.

A fascinating space is this biological weapons plot, where China [is] now overtakes Russia [in spreading] these themes. But I think it’s important to know that [Beijing] does this for his own reasons. China has an interest in increasing skepticism of US biological research facilities. This is really about COVID; it’s about China pushing back against the narrative that it may be responsible for the origins of COVID and has a desire to push its own conspiracy theories around the origins of COVID.

Overall, I think Russia and China have very different long-term strategies here. Russia’s interests are served by chaos, and its interests are served by destructive and destabilizing activities in Europe and by stirring up a political sense of division in the United States.

China is not really looking for a messy world. China is looking for a world that is somehow rearranged in its favor and this is just one step towards that end. China’s Interest in Russia’s Biological Weapons Plots Isn’t Really About Deflecting Blame From Russia [for its invasion of Ukraine]and it is not really about the domestic political turn that is dividing the United States that these stories are [feeding]. It is really in his own interest to deflect blame for COVID.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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