On September 19, Russia held its parliamentary elections. Largely considered neither free nor fair, the results showed that the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, retained a supermajority in the parliament. While Moscow’s authoritarian tendencies were no secret, this election season showed a series of developments that demonstrated further erosion of digital rights in Russia, and a worrying descent into digital isolation.
Prior to the elections, the Russian parliament, the Duma, had passed a series of laws banning contents produced by “extremist organizations,” a list that included well-known Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s organization, and other dissidents and opposition leaders. Days before the elections, the Russian government successfully pressured Apple and Google to remove “Smart Vote,” an app designed by Navalny’s supporters that encouraged tactical voting against United Russia, from their app stores. In the past, these companies were fined by the Russian government for not removing “illegal” content. In addition, the authorities have also unveiled new online monitoring tools that would search for banned content across social media, including messaging apps such as Telegram.
Internet censorship has been in place in Russia since 2012. In recent years, however, attempts to control the Internet have intensified. In 2017, the government passed a law banning the use of VPNs and other softwares that could circumvent Internet censorship. Two years later, the Duma passed additional legislation calling for the creation of a “sovereign internet,” similar to the “national internet” in Iran and internet ecosystem in China and Vietnam. These legislations call for the forced localization of Russian data, the need for social media giants to open offices in Russia, and compliance of all internet content with Russian laws.
Despite its name, “sovereign” or “national” internet is anything but local. It is part of a wider, international campaign by authoritarian governments to further restrict internet access in their own countries. In fact, there are numerous agreements and joint projects between China, Russia, and Iran to reinforce their “digital sovereignty.” In light of this unprecedented attack on Internet freedom, Washington needs to make protecting free access to the internet a priority, and ensure that civil societies in these countries are supported.