ZOiS Spotlight 38/2019

Defining borders online: Russia’s sovereign Internet bill

by Anna Litvinenko 16/10/2019
Rally against the Russian sovereign Internet Bill in Moscow in March 2019. Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Foto

Russia’s so-called sovereign Internet bill, which was passed in spring 2019, will enter into force on 1 November. It marks a new milestone in the series of restrictive Internet regulations that started after the wave of protests in 2011–12. Russian state media framed the initiative as a law on a sustainable Internet that would protect Russian citizens from the threat of being disconnected from web infrastructure by the US government.

The Russian strategy of Internet sustainability is based on three pillars. The first is a centralised system of devices that monitor and can block Internet traffic. This is the bill’s main innovation: all providers will be obliged to install these devices, which will be provided by the state. Critics see this as a new censorship tool that the government can use to control and temporarily disrupt online communications, for instance during protests. The second pillar is national software. Its use has been actively promoted in Russia since 2014, when international sanctions against the country were introduced. The third pillar is data localisation. Several laws already regulate the processing of data on Russian citizens; such data must be stored in databases of the Russian Federation. As a consequence, international companies like Facebook or Google would have to bring their servers to the Russian territory, otherwise they could be blocked. However, the authorities have not been so far consequent in in complying with this legislation.

No great Russian firewall

As many experts have argued, the sovereign Internet bill does not mean that Russia is intending to build a new great firewall, as is the case in China. RuNet, the Russian-language part of the Internet, has been developing for decades as a decentralised space with a high degree of freedom, and it would be hard to reverse this process. Doing so would bring not only economic disadvantages for the country but also political ones that the regime is not ready to face.

As Florian Toepfl, a researcher in media and communications, argues in his theory of publics under authoritarian rule, critical public spaces can bring significant benefits to authoritarian rulers and contribute to regime stability. Among these benefits are feedback for the elite about the real state of public opinion and the opportunity for people to vent their discontent. It is also a way of granting opposition elites a controllable area of freedom, thus integrating and satisfying them. Will the Russian state be ready to give up on the benefits that free online spaces bring to the system? Unlikely.

A major shift in global Internet governance

Russia’s sovereign Internet bill is nonetheless alarming, because it represents a major shift in global Internet governance. For decades, Internet isolation has been considered a marginal phenomenon practised by a few authoritarian regimes. Now it is becoming a mainstream activity. With its Digital Silk Road initiative, China is spreading its know-how in the area of Internet control all over the non-Western world. The Chinese case of authoritarian modernisation, in which the government catalyses the digital economy while restraining free speech, has become an attractive role model for many states, including Russia.

The EU tries to counter this diffusion of authoritarian norms through legislation, for instance the 2016 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The union places restrictions on Internet companies but offers no alternative model of how a platform society should be governed.

US tech giants remain more or less the only counterbalance to the rising trend of making the Internet a sovereign domain. However, neither Google nor Facebook has a democratic mandate from Internet users to represent their interests. As experts have highlighted, these companies exist mainly to make a profit, not to promote democracy. And as many cases have shown, tech companies are ready to comply with authoritarian norms to expand their market share.

The Russian sovereign Internet bill is a reminder that the EU urgently needs to promote a democratic model of a platform society. In such a model, citizens would not only have the right to protect their data but would also proactively decide how their data are used to build a future society, thus shaping online borders themselves.

Anna Litvinenko, PhD, is a media and communication scholar and a researcher in the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group “Mediating (Semi-)Authoritarianism: The Power of the Internet in the post-Soviet Space” at the Institute for Media and Communication Studies of the Freie Universität in Berlin.