Russia’s boldest steps to censor the Internet began in the most mundane way – with a series of bureaucratic emails and forms.

The messages sent by Russia’s powerful internet regulator required technical details – such as traffic numbers, device specifications, and connection speeds – from companies providing internet and telecommunications services across the country. Then came the black boxes.

Telecommunications companies had no choice but to step aside as state-approved technicians installed the equipment alongside their own computer systems and servers. Sometimes locked up under lock and key, the new equipment was linked to a command center in Moscow, giving the authorities amazing new powers to block, filter, and slow down websites that the Russian public should not see.

The process is running since 2019, marks the beginning of what is perhaps the world’s most ambitious digital censorship outside of China. Under President Vladimir V. Putinwho once referred to the Internet as a “CIA project” and sees the Internet as a threat to its power, the Russian government is trying to get a grip on the country’s once open and free-running Internet.

The equipment was hidden in the equipment rooms of the largest telecommunications and internet providers in Russia, including Rostelecom, MTS, MegaFon and Vympelcom, a senior Russian legislature revealed this year. According to researchers and activists, the vast majority of the country’s more than 120 million wireless and home internet users are affected.

The world first got a glimpse of Russia’s new tools in action when Twitter slowed to a crawl in the country this spring. It was the first time the filtration system was used, researchers and activists said. miscellaneous pages have since been blocked, including several linked to the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny.

“This is something the world can emulate,” said Laura Cunningham, former director of Internet Freedom Programs at the State Department. “Russia’s censorship model can be quickly and easily copied by other authoritarian governments.”

Russia’s censorship technology stands between companies providing internet access and people surfing the internet with a phone or laptop. The software – known as “Deep Package Inspection” – is often compared to intercepting letters and filtering data transmitted over an Internet network, slowing down websites or removing anything programmed to block.

The disruptions threaten to turn Russia’s thriving digital life on its head. While the political system adheres to Putin’s personality cult and television stations and newspapers are subject to severe restrictions, Online culture is bursting with activism, black humor and strange content. Extensive censorship of the Internet could lead the country back into a deeper form of isolation, similar to the Cold War era.

“I was born in the era of the super-free internet and now see it collapse,” said Ksenia Ermoshina, a researcher from Russia who now works at the French National Center for Scientific Research. In April she published a paper on censorship technology.

The censorship infrastructure was described by 17 Russian telecommunications experts, activists, researchers and academics with knowledge of the work, many of whom declined to mention because they feared reprisals. Government documents reviewed by the New York Times also outlined some of the technical details and requirements for telecommunications and Internet service providers.

Russia is using censorship technology to gain more leverage over Western internet businesses, along with other powerful weapon and legal intimidation tactics. In September, after the Government threatened arrest Local Google and Apple employees removed apps run by supporters of Mr Navalny before the national election.

Roskomnadzor, the country’s internet regulator overseeing the effort, can now go further. It has threatened to disable YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram if they don’t block certain content themselves. After authorities slowed Twitter this year, the company agreed to remove dozens of posts that were deemed illegal by the government.

Russia’s censorship efforts have met with little resistance. In the United States and Europe, which once wholeheartedly advocated an open internet, leaders have remained largely silent in the face of growing distrust and attempts to do so in Silicon Valley regulate the worst internet abuse themselves. The Russian authorities have referred to the regulation of the western technology industry to justify their own action.

“It is noticeable that the Biden administration did not notice it,” said Michael McFaul, the former American ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration. He criticized Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter for not speaking out more forcefully against Russia’s policies.

A White House spokeswoman said the government had spoken to the Russian government about freedom of expression online and urged the Kremlin to “stop its printing campaign to censor critics.”

In a statement, Roskomnadzor did not address its filtering technology, but said foreign social networks continue to ignore Russian internet laws that prohibit incitement and content on topics that “divide the state,” such as drug use and extremist organizations. “Russian media and information legislation does not allow censorship,” it said, adding that the law “clearly defines what types of content are harmful and pose a threat to citizens.”

Google, which owns YouTube, and Twitter declined to comment. Apple did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Facebook did not specifically address Russia, but said it was “obliged to respect the human rights of all those who use our products”.

Rostelecom, one of Russia’s largest Internet service providers, referred questions to Roskomnadzor. MegaFon declined to comment. MTS and Vympelcom did not respond to requests for comment.

Many wonder whether Russia has the technical expertise or the political will to cut off important online entertainment, information and work sources for its citizens. In 2018, before the new censorship technology was in place, authorities abandoned efforts to shut down the popular messaging service telegram because of technical problems and public anger. Many see YouTube as a future destination as it is used by independent media outlets and Kremlin critics, which could create a backlash.

Internet access, however, is increasingly used as an instrument of political power. In recent years, governments in India, Myanmar, Ethiopia and elsewhere have Internet outages To stifle disagreements. Russia switched off the internet during the anti-government protests in the southern Ingushetia region in 2018 and in Moscow in 2019.

China provided inspiration. For years, Russian politicians held talks with Chinese officials to make their own Great firewall, once even meeting with the architect of the filters that block foreign sites. In 2019, during the China World Internet Conference, Roskomnadzor signed an agreement with its Chinese analogue promising stricter state controls over the Internet.

But unlike China, which has three state-owned telecommunications companies that bring people online, Russia has thousands of internet providers, making censorship difficult. This is where the black boxes come in, which provide government officials with a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer to filter certain websites and services without cutting off access.

Russia has a long history of censorship. For decades, international phone lines were restricted and radio jammers interfered with international broadcasts. The state still tightly controls television.

The internet was different. It has been credited with playing a part in it Boris Yeltsin In 1991 to power by allowing pro-democratic groups inside and outside Russia to coordinate and share information. In the years that followed, fiber optic cables were laid to connect the country to the global Internet.

Mr. Putin tried to put that spirit back in the bottle. Surveillance systems monitor people’s online activity and some bloggers have been arrested. In 2012 the country passed a law Internet service providers had to block thousands of banned websites, but it was difficult to enforce and many websites remained available.

So in May 2019, Mr Putin has signed off In a new phase: a law on the “sovereign Internet”, which forced Internet service providers to install “technical means of defense against threats” – equipment loaded with software for the government to track Internet traffic without the involvement or knowledge of companies, to filter and redirect.

The law created a register of transnational internet cables entering the country and key exchange points connecting internet networks in Russia. This card makes it easier for authorities to close parts of the network, experts said.

Since then, hundreds of companies have received orders from Roskomnadzor. The regulator requested information about the company’s computer systems and what settings must be used to allow a government agency, the Center for Monitoring and Management of Public Communications Networks, to remotely access their networks, according to documents communicated to the Times.

Then government-approved contractors installed the filtering equipment, which enabled the regulator to block, slow down or reroute traffic, said Mikhail Klimarev, an industry analyst who has worked with Russian internet companies like Rostelecom.

“There is a blocking system installed at the border of every Russian Internet service provider,” he said.

The technology is now in 500 telecom operator locations and covers 100 percent of mobile Internet traffic and 73 percent of broadband traffic, a Russian official who was involved in the program called On Wednesday. The technology will be deployed in more than 1,000 locations by next year, the official said.

According to researchers from the University of Michigan and Russian telecommunications experts, the filter technology is made by companies such as RDP.ru, a Russian telecommunications technology provider with ties to the government. On RDPs website, prides itself on offering “high-performance URL filtering of banned websites” that enables operators to comply with Russian laws. The company sells products in Belarus and Kazakhstan, countries where human rights groups have documented internet censorship.

RDP.ru did not respond to a request for comment.

The attack on Twitter, which is not very popular in Russia, is a “crucial moment,” said Andrei Soldatov, co-author of “The Red Web,” a book about the Russian Internet. University of Michigan researchers measured the connection slowed by about 87 percent, only marginally better than cellular networks from the early 2000s.

“It has shown that they have this ability and can use it,” said Mr Soldatov.

Oleg Matsnew Reporting contributed. Additional production of Gray Beltran.



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