Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Russian authorities have “redoubled their efforts” over the past year to repress online freedoms, citing the blocking of tools used to circumvent censorship, expanding “oppressive” Internet laws, and pressure on tech companies to comply with “increasingly stifling regulations.”
“This past year’s dramatic crackdown on Internet freedoms is the culmination of many years’ efforts by the authorities to restrict the rights and freedoms of Russians online,” Anastasiia Kruope, assistant Europe and Central Asia researcher at HRW, said in a statement on December 24.
The government “is using its growing technological capacity to engage in nontransparent, unlawful, and extrajudicial restriction of digital rights in Russia,” she said.
The New York-based human rights watchdog cited the blocking earlier this month of Tor, an encrypted browser commonly used to circumvent local Internet censorship or to browse the Internet anonymously.
Since June, Russia has also blocked at least eight virtual private network (VPN) service providers for allegedly violating a 2017 law that prohibits proxy services from facilitating access to websites banned in Russia, it said.
HRW said such efforts have been facilitated by Russia’s deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows the authorities to “directly filter, reroute, and block” Internet traffic.
The “sovereign Internet” law adopted in 2019 requires all Internet service providers to install DPI technology in their networks.
In March, authorities used DPI technology to slow down access to Twitter for its failure to take down content the government deemed unlawful, HRW said, noting that the measure came weeks after social media companies were given large fines for failing to take down posts calling for participation in peaceful mass protests in support of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
According to HRW, the authorities repeatedly threaten to block access to the websites of foreign and Russian tech firms over alleged noncompliance with the country’s Internet legislation.
In September, digital rights groups reported the temporary blocking of access to the Google Docs service by Russian Internet service providers, in what they said illustrated the extrajudicial and nontransparent nature of DPI technology.
It coincided with the publication by Navalny associates of a list of candidates voters should cast ballots for to topple ruling party incumbents in parliamentary elections.
Navalny’s voting app also disappeared from the Apple and Google online stores in what Navalny associates slammed as censorship and the tech giants bowing to Kremlin pressure.
Over the past year, major social media platforms and other tech companies have also been fined for allegedly violating Russian Internet legislation.
Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Google, TikTok, and other Internet companies received fines totaling at least $2.5 million over failures to take down supposedly illegal content or store the personal data of Russian users in the country.
According to HRW, the Russian government has also attempted to use its domestic legislation to “dictate content moderation practices to Internet companies, even in relation to their business operations in other countries.”
Earlier this month, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube for taking down the German-language channel of Russia’s state-owned media company RT, citing a Russian law adopted a year ago and said to be aimed at safeguarding Russians’ right of access to information.
This law allows the authorities to block websites over censored Russian state media content.
HRW said other recent Russian laws raise concerns, including legislation requiring websites designated by the authorities to monitor the number of users and their preferences, and a law allowing for the extrajudicial blocking of alleged defamatory information.
“Russian authorities claim that they’re working to safeguard the interests of Russian Internet users,” Kruope said.
“Instead, relying on their growing arsenal of internet censorship, they are rapidly turning the Internet in Russia into a zone of repression,” she added.