Understanding Russia’s Internet Policy

March 16, 2017

In a public lecture at CEU’s Center for Media, Data and Society on March 14, Nathalie Maréchal explored why Putin has pursued a particularly aggressive internet policy in recent years. She said that it was important to understand Putin’s internet policy as part of a broader information control policy that seeks to accumulate power and control for Russia’s elites. “The big bear in the room,” she said, “is kleptocracy” noting that “Russian elites have been robbing their people blind for decades.” Maréchal said that the turning point though was 2011, the year of the Arab Spring and also the year when there were widespread demonstrations in Russia protesting the results of the legislative elections.

According to Maréchal, who is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and Senior Research Fellow at Ranking Digital Rights, Putin is seeking to achieve both geopolitical (nostalgia for superpower status and resistance to NATO and EU expansion) and also ideological goals by pursuing a policy of networked authoritarianism. Maréchal defined networked authoritarianism by quoting Rebecca MacKinnon who has said that networked authoritarianism gives the illusion of freedom of expression and allows for economic benefits of the digital economy without actually allowing dissent to gain traction.

Maréchal pointed to domestic censorship as one area where networked authoritarianism can be seen in Russia. She noted that the USSR had always tightly controlled information by, for example, regulating the ownership and use of photocopiers. It is probably not surprising then that Russians “don’t mind” internet censorship. Maréchal pointed to a recent survey that showed that 49% of Russians feel that information on the internet should be censored. “Many Russians see the internet as dangerous, as being a threat,” said Maréchal.

Networked authoritarianism can also be seen in domestic surveillance in Russia, which is “grounded in imperial and Soviet traditions.” Maréchal pointed to SORM (the System of Operational-Investigatory Measures) that gives the Russian government direct access to all electronic communication as one of the tools Russia uses to carry out domestic surveillance.

Maréchal spoke also about how Russia and China are working together within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) “to teach member states to become better at networked authoritarianism.”

Although the United States had done some of the things that Russia is now accused of doing – such as meddling in elections – Maréchal said this was a “false equivalence” pointing out that what the United States had done took place “30 years ago for the most part.” She went on to observe, “what Russia is doing is prompted by completely different values. You can’t compare the promotion of human rights with promoting far-right, repressive politicians.”

To explain why the media infrastructure of liberal democracies is so vulnerable to the types of attacks that Russia has launched recently, Maréchal cited the work of Tim Berners-Lee who has identified three challenges for the web: gaining control of our personal data; the ease with which misinformation can spread; and the lack of transparency surrounding political advertising. Maréchal pointed also to the work of Victor Pickard who has recently been a guest speaker at CMDS and has argued forcefully that we need to “take profit out of news.” “I agree,” said Maréchal. “But,” she went on to say, “we also need to double down on net neutrality, improve media literacy education, and force Facebook and others to recognize they are media companies.”

Nathalie Maréchal is the author of “Networked Authoritarianism and the Geopolitics of Information: Understanding Russian Internet Policy,” Media and Communication, volume 5, issue 1 (forthcoming).  A pre-publication version of the article can be found here.