RuNet 2014: Top 10 Trends on the Russian Internet (Part I)

25.12.2014

RuNet is coming of age, according to one of the key-note speakers at the joint conference run by the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC) and the Fund for Development of Internet Initiatives (FRII) in mid-December in Moscow drawing conclusions of the year 2014 for the Russian Internet segment. RuNet’s rampant growth in the past years has shown that it is indeed a global social-economic as well as political phenomenon impossible to ignore. According to RAEC, Internet penetration in Russia reached 68,7 million people in 2014 with Internet market hitting 1 trillion roubles in 2013 (about 1,6% GDP) and expected 30% growth by the end of 2014 (and the volume of the Internet-dependent markets estimated at up to 10% GDP).

More importantly, RuNet has been gradually but insistently engaged into the existing frameworks and systems of regulating the social, economic and political life of the population through developing the corresponding legislative tools. The institutional ecosystem for the digital businesses as well as for broader Internet governance in Russia has also been complemented with some the missing elements (in July 2014 the institute of Internet Ombudsman was set up in Russia with Dmitry Marinichev, General Director of Radius Group, assuming the role. The recently re-launched oldest Russian Internet civil society group ROCIT (Regional Public Centre for Internet Technologies)will promote user rights online and will be led by Leonid Levin, head of the State Duma committee on the information policy). 

This reveals the contradictory trends which have shaped out in the past couple of years around the RuNet development. On the one hand, this engagement seems to be trying to embrace the best practices in the area of e-government, Internet access, bridging the digital divide, content management and make the most of them economically. On the other hand, the amounting mostly restrictive legislation has been narrowing the online space at almost all levels of its governance at a rate which has spurred talks about further fragmentation of the global Internet as RuNet has been wall-gardening itself.

Many of the RuNet developments have demonstrated what is traditionally perceived as ‘splinternet’ or ‘balcanisation’ symptoms. However, the Internet fragmentation is an objective process triggered by the increasing application of the offline rules by various countries to the online space, including Russia. As the global Internet is increasingly taking national or quasi-national forms to meet the needs, norms and values of local communities, it is targeted by local regulators. Even though their implementation is claimed to be Russia-specific, few regulation initiatives are essentially unique to Russia while many policy ideas have been borrowed in some form from other countries’ experience (like anti-piracy measures, data localisation, blocking extremist content etc). It is rather the speed and concentration of the regulatory efforts that is impressive, while in many ways until recently RuNet has been playing catch-up, test-driving practices tried elsewhere. Even though it has been repeatedly pointed out that the industry players should form a more distinct and proactive stance to pre-empt direct legislative interference, the general direction of deeper and broader control of the online space is here to stay through what is called ‘stimulating regulation’.

The current stand-off with the west over Ukraine has posed new geopolitical challenges which have added to the general defensive leitmotif in the RuNet governance with a tighter grip on online communications and transactions, which often contradicts the announced goals of economic stimulation in the ICT area as one of the vehicles of non-commodity based growth. As 2014 has shown, the economic potential of the ICT­­­ and Internet-dependent industries is given due credit but will remain secondary to the “sovereignisation” of the web, in certain instances potentially mitigating its effects. The following trends and events in RuNet and global Internet in 2014 testify to this dynamic.

1. In the area of global Internet governance 2014 will be remembered as the year which marked the start of the ongoing process of the transition of the IANA Stewardship Transition to the multistakeholder community. It was announced on 14 March 2014 by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the United States Department of Commerce, which since 2000 has been in contract relations with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) over the performance of the Internet infrastructure management functions. This move, long anticipated by many in the industry as removing the perceived US monopoly on the internet backbone, was sped up by the 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden concerning the dragnet electronic surveillance by NSA. The process appears to be contentious and it’s not clear whether a consensus will be reached by September 2015 when the NTIA-ICANN contract expires or will its extension options be enacted.

What is important in the RuNet context is one of the conditions set forward by the NTIA for the transition, that is, the impossibility of surrendering the global Internet governance rein to a state or a group of states. This should appease the worries of those fearing the proverbial Internet take-over by China or Russia. However, the rumours about an internet kill switch’ being devised in Russia sent other signals across the world. Meanwhile in Russia the summer cyber drill reportedly revealed vulnerabilities in RuNet security infrastructure preparedness against potential external aggression. This produced calls for the creation of a self-contained system duplicating root DNS architecture to keep the RuNet running in case of emergency, either external which is no longer seen as hypothetical in the current belligerent geopolitical context or internal in case of civil disorder and/or extremist actions. Even though a special Security Council meeting reassured that no ‘internet switch off’ or state take-over is planned, it would be right to assume further strengthening of the RuNet at the level of critical cyber-infrastructure as a part of the national security capacities.

2. One of the most controversial laws passed this year is Federal Law 242-FZ ‘On the introduction of amendments into separate legal acts of the Russian Federation defining the order of personal data processing in the information and telecommunication networks’, which restricts to the territory of the Russian Federation the collection, retention, processing, and storage of Russian citizens’ personal data by internet operators. Initially meant to come into force on 1 September 2016 it caused a lot of panic in the industry when a new deadline 1 January 2015 was speedily passed through the first and second readings in the State Duma, putting at question the feasibility of too many Internet businesses, not only that of the ‘usual suspects’ – giant foreign tech-companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter etc – whose operations the Russian authorities have been at pains to integrate in the Russian jurisdiction. The decision not to go ahead with the deadline amendment first sent hopeful signals to the players that the regulator has taken a milder position following a number of consultations with the industry leaders. Earlier in the year a similar bill, also inspired by the revelations about the global online surveillance practices, was given up in Brazil in favour of stable business relationship with the affected businesses.

However, a new target deadline 1 September 2015 was adopted in December by Duma in second and third readings as a compromise date. While most industry players remain skeptical about the feasibility of compliance with the law by the deadline, labeled as the citizens’ data protection efforts, data localization does not ensure security per se, and this distinction often gets lost in the official speak on the issue. Google’s subsequent news about the intention to withdraw its engineering staff from Russia was taken by many as a sign of desperation after a series of consultations between the company and the regulator Roskomnadzor earlier this year (even so, Google insists that it’s not shutting down the operations altogether and plans further investment into the Russian market next year). Previous back-outs by Adobe, Photoshop, Skype thus form an unpleasant trend as the regulator and foreign players seem to find it hard to strike a constructive note.

3. As big internet firms generally come under much more regulatory push now from governments all around the world, levers have been devised to carry out this pressure in Russia. Federal law N 398-ФЗ "On amendments into the Federal Law "On information, information technologies and information security" came into force in February 2014 and were branded “political censorship law” for allowing pre-court blocking of web-resources instigating riots, extremist or terrorist actions, thus extending the outreach of the original law fighting child pornography, suicide and drugs promotion. This law has been actively used ever since to ask Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to remove or restrict access to content. In its latest Transparency Report Google reports that between June and December 2013 the number of content take-down requests from Russia increased by 25% compared to the preceding reporting period, while 11% requests globally cited privacy or security as a reason for removal.  Coupled with the requirement that the ISPs and telcos store communications data for at least 6 months, this builds an increasingly powerful ecosystem for information and communications control.

The most recent case of Facebook and Twitter blocking Navalny’s support meet-up pages upon Roskomnadzor request as instigating civil unrest, is a good illustration of how the mechanism is intended to work in theory. Leaving aside a number of ways to circumvent the blockings, it does not prove particularly efficient as new groups and ‘event’ keep popping up which the platforms can hardly closely monitor in real time, and the only logical solution would be to block the resources altogether. Roskomnadzor seems reluctant to take drastic measures, which would be futile now that the ‘Streisand effect’ has already taken place and the information has been sent across.

4. Social media platforms which have already proven a powerful tool in global during the Arab Spring events and other conflicts are now globally used for online activism, and the outreach is not limited by regional conflicts. For example, jihadist groups recruit followers though social media worldwide to promote their ideas and raise funds in a targeted manner, as the rise of the Islamic State (ISIL) has revealed. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube have recently become more responsive to the states’ requests to remove extremist content, although the trade-off between security and the freedom of speech is traditionally a difficult one in the west. In Russia VKontakte (VK) is extensively used by ISIL recruiters, and more attention can be expected from the law enforcement bodies, however, as the example above shows, blocking individual groups or content is not a panacea. New routes for information exchange come up quicker than action is taken.

The same holds true for the Ukraine crisis where social networks have also been instrumental for propaganda and information war on both sides. Apart from Twitter wars, the battles continue in the VK and Odnoklassniki – two most popular social networks in Ukraine which happen to be Russian, and are in full compliance with the Russian regulator. However, the digital part of this hybrid war is increasingly mighty and hard to control due to its scope and speed of action.

Continue reading Part II

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