Russia raises the stakes with wide-reaching and blunt internet clampdown

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On Friday 13 April, inside a cramped Moscow courtroom, judge Yulia Smolina made Russian internet history. It took her just 19 minutes to agree to a government request to block the popular messaging app Telegram. The brutal efficiency of the decision – which took hold even before an appeal took place – suggested everyone thought implementation would be easy. 

The reality has been anything but. 

Communications regulator Roskomnadzor began implementing the ban last Monday, ordering internet providers to block access to the messaging app. A game of hide and seek ensued. As soon as the first subnets were blocked, Telegram switched its servers to alternate IP addresses. Regulators responded by blocking entire internet subsets – to general calamity. By midday on 19 April, it had banned a total of 18 million IP addresses (compare this to 38,000 in all previous years).

Many businesses, including parts of the banking infrastructure, were caught in Roskomnadzor’s net. On Sunday, Gmail and some other Google services went offline for many Russians, as the authorities shut down major networks they believed were being used to circumvent the ban.

Telegram, meanwhile, remained accessible to the vast majority of Russian users. 

The Kremlin faced an embarrassing reality that the internet was stronger than its heaviest fist. But for many, the fear is that sharper impacts will now follow. 

Once a largely free space, the Russian internet has been increasingly subjected to regulation and censorship. 

The first blocklists appeared in 2012. Now, the decision of a remote Siberian village court is enough for a site to be struck off completely. Such, for example, was the fate that befell the country’s leading LGBT website, gay.ru, earlier this year – and any number of dating and porn sites the year before. 

In 2015, a new law was passed forcing foreign tech companies to move Russian data to servers inside Russia. Most refused to comply, but that may change. 

Kremlin hardliners have meanwhile made little secret of ongoing work to build an analogue to the Great Chinese Firewall. 

The Chinese model is now one of three scenarios under consideration, said independent observer Konstantin Gaaze. 

The first is to continue as if nothing has happened. 

Russia could certainly continue its haphazard approach of blocking subsets and IP addresses. But if it is to appear remotely effective, it will need the agreement of Apple and Google – for example, to block the notifications the app is using to update users on new server addresses. In 2016, the tech giants did cooperate with the Kremlin to remove the much less popular LinkedIn platform from its stores, but it is unclear if they will do so in these more controversial circumstances. 

On the other hand, Russia could choose to revisit and fudge the original court decision. 

Or it could take a sledgehammer to the internet with a system of filters and whitelists. 

“The security council met on Thursday, and it appears no major decision has been taken,” Mr Gaaze told The Independent. “Things are likely to continue as they are until the inauguration in May – then it is anyone’s guess”

Others are less sure that Russia can make a firewall work. 

“It isn’t workable right now, as we don’t have the technology to deal with the data involved,” said Andrei Soldatov, author of The Red Web. China has been ready to lend a hand to the Kremlin, the security expert told The Independent, but the “paranoia” of Russia’s security services has prevailed.

“There were high level meetings, but it seems the regulators have refused to accept Chinese help,” he said.  

Up until ill now, the Russian system has muddled through with a system of fear and selective punishment. The unexpected resistance of Telegram may change that. 

“The severity of Russia’s legislation has always been compensated by the lack of enforcement – that was the old adage,” said IT entrepreneur David Homak. “Telegram may not yet be blocked, but the Kremlin has shown it is ready for a battle, demonstrating strength in the most primitive sense .” 

In an interview with Izvestia, Roskomnadzor’s chief Alexander Zharov appeared to be clearing the way for a renewed assault on those tech companies refusing to move their data to Russia. 

“We will finish our compliance checks by the end of this year,” he told the pro-Kremlin newspaper. “If nothing happens … then obviously the question of blocking arises.”

For Mr Soldatov, last week’s technical failure might be interpreted as political success. 

“After a week or two of this, the Kremlin might come to a view that it’s taken all the heat its possible to muster,” he said. 

“At that point, nothing is stopping it moving against Facebook”.