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China censors the Internet. So why not in Russia?

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-Kremlin-controlled RT television network, recently called on the government to ban access to Western social media.

She wrote: “Russia’s foreign platforms must be shut down.”

She chooses the social network to send the message: Twitter.

Although the Kremlin is worried about the open Internet shaped by American companies, it cannot quit smoking.

In Russia’s winter of dissatisfaction, the return of opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny triggered a wave of national protests thanks to the country’s free and open Internet. The state controls television broadcasts, but Navalny was dramatically arrested when he arrived in Moscow, his investigation of the secret palace claimed by President Vladimir V. Putin and the protests of his supporters The appeals are broadcast to millions of people online.

For years, the Russian government has been building technological and legal infrastructure to curb online freedom of speech, which has led to frequent predictions that the country may be moving towards an Internet censorship system similar to China’s powerful firewall.

But even if Putin faced the largest protest in years last month, his government seems reluctant-and to some extent unable-to block websites or take other drastic measures to limit the spread of digital dissidents.

The indecision highlights the challenges Putin faces. Putin is trying to calm the political influence of cheap high-speed Internet access to remote areas of the vast country while avoiding angering people who fall in love with Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok.

“They are scared,” Moscow telecommunications consultant Dmitri Galushko (Dmitri Galushko) said of why the Kremlin did not crack down more severely. “They have all these weapons, but they don’t know how to use them.”

In a broader sense, how to deal with the Internet problem is a dilemma for Putin’s Russia: whether to raise state repression to a new level, risk the strong public opposition, or continue by maintaining some kind of open society Continue to work hard to manage public dissatisfaction. .

In China, government control is closely related to the early development of the Internet. But in Russia, the Soviets had a huge engineering talent pool, so digital entrepreneurship developed freely for two decades, until Putin tried to restrict online speech after anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012.

At that time, the open Internet was deeply entrenched in business and society, and its structure was so fragmented that it could not fundamentally change its course. However, after Parliament passed the bill, efforts to censor networks and the requirement for Internet providers to install equipment for government surveillance and control accelerated in the bill. At the same time, partly due to government support, Internet access continued to expand.

Russian officials now say that they already have the technology to use the “sovereign RuNet”, which will continue to enable Russians to visit Russian websites even if the country is disconnected from the World Wide Web. The official statement is that this expensive infrastructure will provide protection if evil Western forces try to cut off Russia’s communications. But activists say that this is actually a choice for the Kremlin to isolate part or all of Russia from the world.

Dmitri A. Medvedev, the vice chairman of Putin’s security committee and former prime minister, recently told reporters: “In principle, it is possible to restore or enable the autonomous functions of the Russian network.” “Technically speaking, everything’s ready.”

In this year’s domestic turmoil, Russia’s aggressive actions against Silicon Valley have reached new heights. Mr. Navalny has used the expert knowledge of Google’s YouTube, Facebook’s Instagram and Twitter to describe official corruption with his memetic descriptions in order to reach thousands of Russians until he claims to be on the property he uses A toilet brush worth $850 found in. Putin.

At the same time, Russia seems powerless to try to prevent these companies from blocking pro-Kremlin accounts or forcing them to remove pro-Navalny content. (Even if Navalny was released from prison, Mr. Navalny’s voice resonated on social media: On Saturday, the court upheld his sentence of more than two years.)

Russia’s telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor has publicly condemned US Internet companies, sometimes multiple times a day. The regulator said on Wednesday that the voice chat social network clubhouse (Clubhouse) violated “the right of citizens to obtain information and freely distribute information” because the account suspended the famous national television host Vladimir Solovyov Account. On January 29, the company claimed that Google blocked YouTube videos containing the Russian national anthem, calling it “blatant and unacceptable rude behavior against all citizens of our country.”

The clubhouse apparently blocked Solovyov’s account due to user complaints, and Google said that some videos containing the Russian national anthem were wrongly blocked due to content rights issues. The clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition, because of the surge in protests across the country after Navalny was arrested last month, Rosco Mandazo said that social networks encourage minors to participate in illegal activities.

The Russian social network VKontakte and the Chinese-owned app TikTok partially complied with Roskomnadzor’s order, which prohibits access to content related to the protest. But Facebook refused to say: “This content does not violate our community standards.”

All criticisms of the Kremlin against American social media companies have used them extensively to spread around the world. It was Facebook that became Russia’s main tool to influence the 2016 US presidential election. On YouTube, the English, Spanish and Arabic channels of the state-controlled network RT have a total of 14 million subscribers.

Ms. Simonyan, RT’s editor, said that as long as the use of US social media platforms is not prohibited, she will continue to use them.

In a statement to the New York Times, she said: “Abandoning the use of these platforms when everyone else is using them is a submission to the enemy.” “Forbidding everyone to use them is to defeat the opponent.”

A law signed by Putin last December gave his government new powers to block or restrict access to social networks, but has not yet used it. When regulators tried to block access to the messaging app Telegram in 2018, two years of efforts failed when Telegram found a way to resolve the restrictions.

Instead, officials tried to lure Russians into joining social networks closely related to the government, such as VKontakte. Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the state-owned gas giant, promised to turn its long-used video platform RuTube into a competitor to YouTube. In December of last year, Google stated that it had purchased an app based on TikTok called “Ya Molodets” (Russian means “I am great”) for sharing short videos on smartphones.

The journalist Andrei Soldatov, who wrote a book with the Kremlin’s efforts to control the Internet, said the strategy of persuading people to use the Russian platform is a way to avoid the spread of dissidents in times of crisis . Since April 1, all smartphones sold in Russia must be pre-installed with 16 Russian-made applications, including 3 social networks and answers to Apple’s Siri voice assistant Marusya.

Sodatov said: “The goal is to allow typical Russian users to live in the bubble of Russian apps.” “Probably, it may be quite effective.”

Some activists say that what is more effective is the acceleration of Mr. Putin’s selective suppression machine. A new law stipulates that online defamation carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and the editor of a popular news website was sentenced to 15 days in prison for reposting a joke that included a pro-Navalny protest in January.

In the widely circulated video this month, a special police team in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok (sea cucumber div) can be seen interrogating Gennady Shulga, a local video blogger who reported on the protests. The officer wearing a helmet, goggles and anti-fatigue pushed Mr. Shuerga shirtlessly to the tiled floor next to the two pet food bowls.

Internet liberal Sarkis Darbinyan said: “The Kremlin is losing the information race greatly.” “Self-censorship and fear-this is where we are going.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed the report.

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