Securitising Putin IV: the rationale behind Russia’s new “digital laws”
Russia’s internet watchers can hardly get bored. For the last five years, while the domestic landscape was being subject to political “consolidation” and the international environment largely shaped by digital/cyber-related events, a myriad of “defensive measures” were implemented by the Russian decision-makers to tighten state control over the internet. From a nascent though fragile “digital public sphere” under Dmitry Medvedev as president to a “dictatorship-of-the-law” approach to any digital-related issue since 2012,1 it is easy to see the internet as one of the main “losers” in Russian political life.
The recent series of laws passed by the State Duma2 are thus part of a cycle that is well likely to bring Russia’s internet not under mere high scrutiny by state officials or legislative grey area, but under firm government control. The parallel with the Chinese internet – for long not as relevant as it might have appeared at first sight because of great disparities between the two peoples’ mentalities and online behaviours – even matches in terms of schedule: Moscow and Beijing nearly simultaneously adopted repressive legislations against instant-messaging services such as Telegram and WhatsApp, as well as against anonymising tools such as VPNs and the TOR network. All these services are increasingly popular among Russian internet users.
Russian legislative frenzy comes just-in-time for elections
Today the internet is no longer considered as a “social decompression chamber” that would keep the Russian population out of politics:3 the 2011-2012 mass demonstrations in the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg are still well in the memories of Vladimir Putin and his entourage. Therefore, the legislative frenzy of Russian decision-makers must be seen under the prism of the upcoming electoral sequence: gubernatorial elections in September and, more importantly, presidential election in March 2018. Ahead of the presidential election the Kremlin unsurprisingly seeks to prevent any mass online-coordinated street protest that might stymie Putin’s upcoming fourth presidency and legitimacy.
Thus, this umpteenth tightening of the screws in the digital sphere is set to artificially inflate the costs of any contest – for civil society and for the local industry which provides the latter with tools and services for political emancipation. “Information warfare” starts at home: the set of repressive laws called “Yarovaya legislation”, signed by Putin in July 2016, had a huge psychological impact on both the industry and internet users.4 Permanent judiciary harassment was until recently “limited” to those figures that emerged in the public sphere thanks to sophisticated uses of the internet; however, prosecution now targets ordinary Russian citizens “guilty” of what they published online, even mere pictures or reposts.
Documentary distributed online causes panic
The nervousness of Russian authorities has been amplified by the great resonance on the internet of the documentary film about alleged corruption by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.5 The film, narrated by the unpredictable and tech-savvy oppositionist Alexey Navalny, shows the yachts, luxurious mansions and a XVII-century villa in Tuscany all controlled by Medvedev through a complex network of acquaintances, charity funds and offshore companies. First posted on YouTube in March, the video has received more than 23.6 million views so far (and 1.5 million on its first day). The unintended popularity of the film logically aroused anxiety in the Kremlin, reviving the fear that internet-based communications might help toppling key political figures – in other words, the regime itself.6
For the past decade and a half, many developments in Russian domestic politics can be effectively explained and analysed through the discourse of “securitisation” and the use by Russia’s political leadership of the rhetoric of existential threat to justify actions increasingly perceived as authoritarian. The internet does not escape from this rationale: in strengthening their hold on the digital sphere and repression towards dissenting voices online, Russian leaders are about to shut one of the last open windows in the political realm.
1. Julien Nocetti, "Russia’s dictatorship-of-the-law approach to internet policy", Internet Policy Review, 4:4, 2015.
2. Vera Kholmogorova, Maria Makutina, « Glava FSB poprosil Dumu uskorit’ prinyatie zakonov o regulirovanii v Seti » [FSB head asked Duma to accelerate the adoption of laws on regulating the internet], RBK, 23 June 2017, http://www.rbc.ru/politics/23/06/2017/594ceb609a7947265009bfc8.
3. Unlike China, where online censorship is also about distracting the public to avoid discussing controversial issues. See Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret Roberts, "How the Chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction, not engaged argument", American Political Science Review, forthcoming (2017).
4. Julien Nocetti, "Yarovaya laws, or the political and economic costs of anti-terror fight", Working paper, October 2016.
5. The video can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrwlk7_GF9g&yt:cc=on.
6. In April a Moscow-based Levada Center poll found that 45% of surveyed Russians support the resignation of Dmitry Medvedev, and indicated that 67% held Vladimir Putin personally responsible for high-level corruption.