Russia’s Censorship May Jeopardize Internet Freedom Worldwide

Russia’s ever-tightening grip on its citizens’ Internet access has troubling implications for online freedom in the United States and other countries that share its decentralized network structure.  (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Russia’s ever-tightening grip on its citizens’ Internet access has troubling implications for online freedom in the United States and other countries that share its decentralized network structure. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Russia’s ever-tightening grip on its citizens’ Internet access has troubling implications for online freedom in the United States and other countries that share its decentralized network structure, according to a University of Michigan study.

Released a week after a sweeping, additional censorship law called Sovereign RUnet took effect in Russia, the researchers say their findings are particularly worrisome for the U.S., where the erosion of net neutrality has given Internet service providers the ability to monitor and shape Internet traffic. That ability would be a key first step in deploying the kind of censorship now used in Russia.

The study analyzes seven years of data collected from a combination of automated monitors and in-country activists, and it details how Russia managed to impose tight censorship over its decentralized infrastructure that includes more than 1,000 privately owned Internet service providers.

Growth of Russian block list (RUBL) over time. (Image: Steve Alvey, Michigan Engineering)

Growth of Russian block list (RUBL) over time. (Image: Steve Alvey, Michigan Engineering)

While this level of censorship is well known in countries like China and Iran, which have state-controlled, centralized Internet backbones, it was long thought to be impossible in decentralized structures like those in Russia, the U.S., India, and the United Kingdom.

Russia’s efforts amount to a blueprint for online censorship that could easily be exported to other countries, according to Roya Ensafi, a U-M computer science and engineering assistant professor. Ensafi, who leads Censored Planet, the research lab that conducted the study, said:

Furthermore, Ensafi explains that the repeal of net neutrality has the potential to set the stage for this kind of censorship. The ability of Internet service providers to monitor and favor certain types of Internet traffic was the first step on the path to today’s censorship regime in Russia.

Russia has taken that strategy a step further with the recent rollout of Sovereign RUnet. The new law is designed to enable the censorship and monitoring of 100 percent of Internet traffic by requiring Internet service providers to install specialized equipment that’s centrally controlled by Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media, or Roskomnadzor.

Sovereign RUnet shows that it’s possible to implement tight censorship without moving away from a decentralized Internet infrastructure, or even making a major investment in technology. And that, Ensafi says, is precisely what makes it so dangerous, adding:

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Sovereign RUnet shows that it’s possible to implement tight censorship without moving away from a decentralized Internet infrastructure, or even making a major investment in technology. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Russia’s efforts began much more modestly in 2007 as a small list of blocked “extremist” sites and has now grown to include more than 170,000 blocked domains. While the top categories include gambling and pornography, the list also includes some Russian-language news, politics, and circumvention websites.

The study’s analysis of seven years of leaked government block lists shows that even as the list has grown, its number of unreachable and duplicate domains has steadily decreased, illustrating Russia’s increasingly sophisticated control over its citizens’ access to the Internet. Ensafi said:

Provided by: University of Michigan [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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