Steve Garner is a researcher at the department of Social Science at Cardiff University. The BBC Analysis programme that he appeared in is available here.
Back in August I talked here about the pro-democracy protests, anti-Putin protests in Moscow, and I noted that, compared to the similarly-motivated protests in Hong Kong, there were small. People might grumble, but there is no arguing that Putin has very widespread support in Russia, and the protesting was done by a particular well-educated cohort.
But it’s important to remember that as well as being small, these protests in Moscow are supported by a particular slice of society. There is a group of well-educated Russians, mostly in Moscow and other large cities who yearn for democracy and western-style freedoms. You could call them a young middle class. They travel abroad on holidays, they speak English and other foreign languages, they get their news online from largely independent sources…
That last point is important; television, regular broadcast television, is hugely popular in Russia; it is hugely influential, and it is totally under the thumb of the Kremlin. Just last week, Alisa Yarovskaya, a prominent journalist on a Russian regional TV station in north west Siberia asked Putin at a press conference why Moscow wasn’t supporting a project to build a bridge to link two local towns, a project that the regional governor had proposed.
Pretty innocuous you might think. Not in Russia. By the next day, she was unemployed, saying that she had quit rather than be fired. That gives you an idea of the level of dissent tolerated, or rather not tolerated, in Russian TV news.
But as I said in August, the young, urban, often well-educated people who are most likely to support democracy often just bypass Kremlin propaganda and get their news online; often they speak English or some other foreign language and keep well-informed via foreign news sites. But there might be a road block coming on that bypass.
This week the Russian government announced that it had successfully tested what is called Runet. This is the internet – sort of. The ‘sort of’ there is important. If you work in a large office, your computer is connected to the internet so you can send email and check websites, right? Not quite. A typical computer in a large office is connected to the company network, and that is connected to the internet, so you can look up stuff online.
So rather than you following a link to the Challenging Opinions website, and your computer getting the content of that website, an office computer asks the company server for the Challenging Opinions website, the server gets that content and passes it on to the user’s computer.
Or maybe not, if your office blocks the Challenging Opinions website. A lot of employers block porn, or social media, or job search websites or all sorts of other content. They’re allowed because it’s their network. But you go home, and unless you put on your own filter, you can access whatever content you want.
But not if you live in China, or Iran, or Thailand or Turkey or a growing number of countries that block content at the national level.
But Russia is going one step further here. As well as setting up what is essentially a gigantic version of a company intranet, where you get selected access to the outside internet, they are forcing telecom companies to comply with the Runet system, which would allow them to not block the internet, but then create a parallel internet system that works only in Russia, and that allows Russians online, but only to view content that originates in Russia.
So people would only be able to send and receive emails or other content within Russia. And if you’re thinking VPN, they’ve thought of that too. VPN is a way to encrypt your internet traffic and disguise where it is coming from and going to. Almost all VPN traffic would be totally blocked by Runet.
Russia has also introduced a law that requires government-controlled apps to be pre-installed on all smartphone sold in the country. Essentially what they are doing is not seeking to put their citizens offline, they are seeking the ability to disconnect Russia’s online from the rest of the world’s online.
This has been called the ‘splinternet’. Where the internet is still there, but autocracies set up a system whereby websites, messaging systems and so on continue to work, but only the ones that they approve, and only the ones that they can spy on when they want to.
The Kremlin has said that this power will only be used in ‘an emergency’ but as with most Russian laws, there is no definition of what might constitute an emergency, and no oversight of anyone making that decision.
But the real significance of this is the determination, in a country where he controls the vast majority of the media, to eliminate the last vestiges of access to free information.