Censorship and repression on the Russian Internet

A massive leak from Russia’s Internet monitoring service (Roskomnadzor) gives an insight into how it monitors entire sections of the web and develops tools to combat “crimes” against Vladimir Putin.

And that’s just what it has been able to declassify: banning foreign social networks, blocking news sites, prosecuting for “likes” or comments. And there is an even larger clandestine effort to ensure a “Clean Internet”, as one of the secret programmes developed by the Russian authorities is called.

Roskomnadzor – the repression tool

The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media is a federal executive body under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. It has a censorship function concerning the media and the Internet, similar to the former “Golovlit” of the USSR.

On paper, Roskomnadzor is an ordinary administrative institution, responsible for allocating radio frequencies or enforcing personal data protection laws. In reality, it has evolved into a structure to control, censor, and even infiltrate entire segments of the Internet.

On May 16, 2014, in an interview with Izvestia newspaper, Deputy Head of Roskomnadzor Maxim Ksenzov stated that Twitter or Facebook could be blocked in Russia, which the agency could implement “within a few minutes” if “the consequences of ‘excluding’ social networks are less significant compared to the damage caused to Russian society by the unconstructive position of the management of international companies”. The official also said that Twitter is an American company and uses users to “promote its corporate interests and the interests of the state in whose jurisdiction it exists.”

Foreign agents

The first lesson to be drawn from these leaks is the scale of the blocking carried out since the start of the “special operation” in Ukraine: in the first nine months of the conflict, 150,000 internet pages and social media postings were erased, in particular those concerning Russian army losses or the crimes it is accused of committing in Ukraine. Access to 72 Russian media outlets, 23 foreign media outlets, and 630 Ukrainian websites was also completely blocked.

Having banned Facebook and Instagram, Moscow continues its information grab.
As part of this monitoring effort, Roskomnadzor agents also share some of their findings with other entities, such as the prosecutor’s office, police, or FSB, security services. This is done by using themed chats with evocative titles: “false information [about the army]”, “anti-establishment sentiment”, “destabilization”, “foreign interference”…

In the same vein, Roskomnadzor compiled lists of hundreds of journalists and bloggers, as well as experts who routinely communicate with them. Many of the individuals on these lists are then identified as “foreign agents”. Other individuals, especially from the cultural world, are tracked in the same way.
One of the main objectives of the Clean Internet – is “to fill created accounts with content to simulate user activity”. It is emphasized that the program must work so that bots can successfully withstand scrutiny when joining even closed groups and communities.

Another Roskomnadzor development mentioned in the published documents is the Bepr program. Its task is to quickly find so-called “information hotspots” (TINs) on the Internet.

“It is intended to locate the source of an information event, estimate the size of the audience that is discussing it and check the actions of the participants in the discussions for violations of the law. Ultimately, Roskomnadzor, with the help of VEPr, is to assess “the potential for TIN to escalate into an information security threat” and, under certain circumstances, “pass the data on to authorized bodies”

Roskomnadzor’s archive of documents contains a list of TINs with more than a hundred topics, ranging from fakes about the Russian army to insults against Vladimir Putin.

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