Agora Reports Russian Internet Censorship Grew 900%

Mathew Sayer From our Perspective

A report from the human rights group Agora has found that instances of internet censorship in Russia have increased ninefold. Web sites are blacklisted in Russia for posting extremist content. In 2014 the figure was 1,019, in 2015, it grew to 9,022. Most government’s conduct online surveillance of some kind; the definition of which bears some similarity to the West’s censorship and surveillance. Both target groups they perceive as domestic extremists. The major difference is the West’s socially liberal attitude. For instance, LGBTQ groups face more state-backed discrimination in Russia than they do in the West but both target Muslim groups and engage in online psychological operations.

In Russia Putin’s strongman presidency relies on control over the media. A free internet challenges the state’s narrative of events. It has been used to justify repression of LGBTQ groups, now it is going after groups who provide legal support to other marginalised people. A war of information is constantly bubbling with dissenters facing prison sentences and a legal struggle. Agora produced the report on internet censorship and shortly afterwards were shut down by the Supreme Court of Tatarstan.

Agora has been active since 2005 and is based in Kazan. They are a collective of several previously independent human rights organizations. Major successes include the successful prosecution of a neo-Nazi accused of murder, defending an art critic from a police officer and preventing a ban on a music group.

Groups and individuals that take part in political activities that oppose Putin are regularly targeted and muzzled. Agora’s members are confident that the ban will backfire and end up drawing more international support to its cause.  Agora’s report was released by Meduza; a Russian news site based out of Latvia to escape Kremlin censorship.

“For all the time [our] association has been operating, it’s engaged in socially significant and universally beneficial activities. It has been under the constant surveillance of regulatory authorities, and at no point did they uncover any significant or inherent violations in our activities.” – Ramil Akhmetgaliev (Meduza)

Russian Tor Usage

Russian Internet Censorship Spikes Tor UsageTo bypass the Kremlin’s heavy-handed efforts human rights organizations and activists are becoming more technologically and strategically sophisticated. Tor usage in Russia is second only to the United States. And it has been growing steadily, having been fifth in 2014.

Country Mean daily users
United States 388907 (18.94 %)
Russia 228337 (11.12 %)
Germany 204196 (9.94 %)
France 126810 (6.17 %)
United Kingdom 92169 (4.49 %)
Italy 60312 (2.94 %)
Spain 59862 (2.91 %)
Brazil 55151 (2.69 %)
Japan 52573 (2.56 %)
Canada 42547 (2.07 %)
Top-10 Tor-using countries by directly connecting users

With internet penetration climbing in Russia controlling the network is a Kremlin priority. When Putin took office, he made an oath to protect the Russian internet from undue government influence. A reward was offered to anyone who could crack the Tor network of between $59,000 and 111,000. Some have disparaged the Kremlin’s lowball offer to break a system like Tor. But the bonds of national security are easier to slip.

Mainstream Internet usage in Russia is found in cities and on mobiles using social networks. There are Russian analogs to traditional Western sites- Vkontakte and Yandex rather than Google and Facebook. Those years of protection are seemingly over, the scale of users has shifted the internet from a niche piece of the media to a big slice. Governments are no longer content to own just the television airwaves- full spectrum control is the new strategy for intelligence agencies around the world.

Continuing to grow

Russians use Tor to communicate beyond the reach of Censorship.

Behind the transition to a borderless Internet is the immense power of the market. Surveillance is an industry not just a part of the security apparatus. This is what a neoliberal state looks like; massive outsourcing and privatisation of the state. The fruits of research and development go to whoever has the cash; meaning states do not need to build the infrastructure and architecture themselves. Everything they want is purchased right off the shelf. Hacking Team has a license to work with the FSB (formerly the KGB). Russian internet censorship is likely to continue, with conflict set to continue in Syria and Ukraine.