Is the Russian Internet getting closer to the Chinese model of control?

With the economic globalization and the rise of the ICTs, the access to the internet is more and more considered as a basic right, as it first constitutes partly the modern forms of freedom of speech and freedom of information. It also comes into play when thinking about modern ways to leverage people’s political empowerment […]

With the economic globalization and the rise of the ICTs, the access to the internet is more and more considered as a basic right, as it first constitutes partly the modern forms of freedom of speech and freedom of information. It also comes into play when thinking about modern ways to leverage people’s political empowerment and civic/community consciousness, thus becoming a significant participatory tool necessary for every effective liberal democracy, would it be regarding the capacity of mobilization, organization, and e-Government.

On the other side of the spectrum, it has been shown that internet also became a multidimensional major tool for the authoritarian control in China, as Gary King argues in the paper “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression[1]”. In this article, Kings shows that complex algorithms are being developed and implemented to let people criticizing the regime but preventing them from knowing each’s others’ opinions, not to bound nor unite to launch an organized social movement. The authoritarian engineering 2.0 appears to enable authoritarian regimes to adapt to the internal change by analysing the characteristic of the development of the Civil Society and isolating protesters one from other. In China, Civil Society tangibly does not enjoy the same history of control over the Government actions’ comparatively to the Western countries. This socio-political pattern gives the Chinese Government legitimacy in controlling the cyber-space as no institutional watchdog is granted by the Rule of Law – considering that law development is based on the interests of the Communist Party of China. Consequently, according to Freedom House in 2018, “China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom[2]”.

Russia is in many ways comparable to China: it is a major country of the international scene, with a Totalitarian Communist past, in transition towards the market economy, whose Government do not hesitate to use repression to sustain its power. Both countries are widely defined as authoritarian, but some differences remain, as the OpenNet Initiative classified[3] the magnitude of censorship and surveillance in Russia “substantial” while in China more “repressive”. On the other hand, Freedom House reported that “throughout the year, authoritarians used claims of “fake news” and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to the China model […] Russia, and other repressive states are also demanding that companies store their citizens’ data within their borders, where the information can be accessed by security agencies”. This quote argues that substantially Russia would be evolving towards the Chinese model. If yes, to what extent is it tangible? In this paper, I am going to explore thematically if Russia has been getting closer to the Chinese model for the last years. This essay does not aim at giving final answers on the question, but to raise some questions and trends that could be relevant to research on deeper by exploring some common and differing issues.

Internet filtering is prior to the censorship, as the first concept refers to the technical ways which enable the control of access on information, and the latter to the control and/or suppression of the information itself. Internet policies over authoritarian consolidation are not limited by censorship and filtration, but also involves the cyber-control by the Government, the capacity of processing a large amount of data for surveillance purposes, and the ability to manage public opinion with technological means.[4] Some researchers[5] emphasize the fact that despite this space being not free, it is nonetheless independent from the state, thus enabling a space for discussion, like a public agora. This agora is however controlled closely by the state institutions of the authoritarian regimes, which deploys tools and strategies, to ensure their own sustainably. These strategies cope with a slight tolerant space which grants the citizens with the illusion of freedom, thus containing a possible contestation that could result of a total oppression.

Authorities nowadays widely “exploit ICTs and emerging media to control information, run sophisticated surveillance programs, and produce propaganda in ways appeal to individuals and add chaos the public discourse[6]”.  Very often, the modern autocrats have adapted to the complex social environment and mastered the cyberspace to increase their own power[7]. This does not mean that Internet is rare in these countries. Paradoxically, among the authoritarian countries, the states having more restrictions on media freedom had higher rates of Internet penetration, according to a 17-years study conducted by Rod and Weidmann[8]. This means automatically that the internet is not perceived by autocracies systematically as a threat whose existence may undermine the regime, but as a manageable interface. Counterintuitively, the citizens of politically non-competitive countries appear to be positively influenced (for regime’s sustainability sake) by entertaining information and culture coming from the West, which makes their life at home more satisfying[9].

China’s internet is characterized by a huge number of users (829 million in 2018[10]), whose dispersion is huge between cities and villages. Censorship and filtration are widespread but are used wisely by the regime for its own survival purposes. As shown by Daniela Stockmann, the Communist Party of China even gather actively social discontent outreached on social networks to shape policies matching with the public opinion’ claims, notably in terms of local economic policies[11]. It is also used as a tool to control the local bureaucrats, who are the first blamed by the Central authorities in case of social discontent, becoming the scapegoats and held responsible for such dysfunction[12]. However, the internet is not only a tool for successful Public Management’s sake. Censorship is very though and has been strengthening lately. Since January 2019, the thousands of staff ensuring the filtration of information have to deal with a new list of 100 types of videos defined as “harmful”[13], and which make fun one way or another of the officials, or challenge the political orientation of the country (including dealing with Hong-Kong, Xinjiang or Taiwan).

Russia does not go that far in the censorship and control of the cyberspace. Since 2012, it can enforce individual-based censorship thanks to its agency Roskomnadzor – by blocking URLs or IP addresses – but do not have a comprehensive system of control. However, the censorship has been increasing in the past years, as the last law passed in March 2019 against fake news showing “clear disrespect for bodies exercising state power” illustrates[14]. Is the Russian model evolving towards the Chinese one, or does it take its own path?

THE POLITICAL USE OF THE INFORMATION?

The mentioned above Freedom House Report states that “governments in Iran, Russia, Egypt, Venezuela, Belarus, China, and Cambodia all took steps to silence independent voices, essentially arguing that only the state can be trusted to separate truth from fiction.” It involves that the media outline and the editorial line of these countries are mainly monopolized by the official state narrative. The political use of the information contains for me two mains aspects.

It deals with the control of the informational inputs that users could add when speaking out on the internet. In that regard, on the Russian internet, some opposition media critical to the powers are allowed and not blocked (as TVRAIN or Current Times TV for example), while others are blocked but accessible via the social networks (as MBK).  In the Chinese internet, finding critical information is more or less impossible without a VPN, as the censure is very high. The information is less filtrated in Russia than in China. The Russian power seems too weak to monopolize all the narrative, both in terms of technological abilities and enforcement of its official version of events. Indeed, the Russian population has another experience of the information and can be more critical, non-even speaking about the particular situations of the globalized cities as St. Petersburg and Moscow. However, people can be sued and put into jail for years to write online on the internet against the power, the occupation of Crimea or issues related with the Syrian war but, in fact, they are rarely sued – mainly if the authorities already target the user[15]. Little information is available about the number of people charged for publishing such critical information in China, but experts estimate a large number of them being in prison, based on the experience of renowned activists put in jail for years despite their worldwide capacity of outreach. Once again, complex algorithms let people speak out, but the information does not spread and is censured after its publication or is heavily criticized methodologically by state-sponsored commenters. In Russia, the penetration of the state into political information is lesser in terms both of content and degree. It is, however, evolving towards the Chinese model for segmental categories of the population, i.e. bloggers and journalists (see “Bloggers law”, 2014).

The political use of the information is also a relevant concept to be developed in terms of spreading content and managing the information outputs. In China, accessing neutrally framed information is a hard thing to achieve. The political use of information also comprises the dimension of “manufacturing consent”, as described by Han being enforced thanks to a “Fifty-Cents Army”  composed by thousands of commenters According to Lagerkvist, China implements a system of “internet ideotainment” (merging of ideology and entertainment) which involves “images, symbolic representations and sounds of popular web and mobile phone culture together with both subtle and overt ideological constructs and nationalistic propaganda”. China controls effectively Internet Browsers’ outputs, for example the services provided by Tencent Holdings, Kuaishou and Dance Technology. In Russia, the same process of disinformation is happening with the help of the St. Petersburg-based “trolling farm”, which acts both abroad and at home to spread pro-regime content in an informal way which dissimulates somehow the nature of the information as being a product of large-scale propaganda.

JOURNALIZING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH AS A WAY TO LEGALIZE CENSORSHIP

In June 2017, China began implementing regulations that ban some social media accounts from posting news without a permit, while in January 2017 (…). Russia pioneered these tactics with a 2014 law that required the registration of blogs with over 3,000 monthly visitors as media outlets. The Russian law also made bloggers liable for the “accuracy” of their content, in a legal environment where criticism of the government is often deemed false or extremist.

This quote extracted from the Freedom House reports reflects the ongoing dynamism in the political sphere of the internet in both China and Russia. The trend appears to be the same, so now in both countries’ bloggers are used to do auto-censure not to have troubles with the authorities. It is a dangerous phenomenon, as at the origin internet is a platform of freedom of speech which is not submitted to the authority. What is more surprising is that the authorities choose to apply this law according to the blogger; in March 2019, an anti-woman blogger has been freed of charges because the Court didn’t consider it was against the law[16]. In the meanwhile, anti-government bloggers are charged for “not respecting to the authority”.

Journalizing the freedom of speech implies considering each citizens speaking out on the internet as a blogger which means that, as journalists, they are responsible for their words thus accountable before the law. On this aspect, China got inspiration from Russia. While Moscow uses this law for targeted persons, Beijing scaled it up and mainstreamed this provision in its Internet security governance environment. Following the development path and the future of it in Russia would show if indeed the Chinese model is a reliable perspective to define the future Russian Internet.

INTERNET’S STATES CAPTURING: A DETERMINANT FACTOR

“When anti-government protests erupted on Russia’s side of the Caucasus Mountains in October, authorities did something they’d never done before: cut mobile internet service to an entire geographical area[17]”. Russia starts indeed to capture the internet up to the next level, thus going further to the Chinese direction. Indeed, the internet has been a place of freedom for the Russians, but nowadays it is much risky to consider the internet as a place of anonymousness. China’s internet arguably never has been free as Russia’s, but since Xi secured his power, the Internet environment has been worsening continuously. In China, the equivalent of Facebook is “WeChat” and is entirely controlled by the Central authorities. In Russia, VK had to give its data to the Russian authority but arguably it has lesser control over the application, even if political objectors are periodically stalked.

In both states, capturing and controlling the internet is a major tool of control which mostly is about inspiring fear and enforcing restrictive laws. However, in China, the level of social control is higher, as through social media and administrative online declaration the government experiments a system to assess the behaviour of its citizens. This dystopian model is being implemented with success with the help of high-technologies and face recognition, and it is related to the party membership and people self-censure and state-control[18]. It is so far hard to imagine such a system in Russia but as China is willing to export its technologies, the international community shall be aware of this issue. Besides, the Internet capture is also related to the general national state capacities the states have over their own territories. Russia scores significantly higher than China in the Fragile States Index (respectively 73 and 88)[19], which means it has less capacity of enforcement that China.

DATA COLLECTION & STATE SOVEREIGNTY: CONCEPTS, TOOLS OF CONTROL, LIMITS

Both countries established the data collection for internet websites. This aspect is very dissuasive for the citizens as its targets the privacy of the information. In June 2019, the last application which surrendered was Tinder (application for dating and meeting) and thus it gave all the information to the FSB. It is a warming for the LGBTQ+ community, who is used to meet through this application. Also, professional network as LinkedIn has been banned from Russia because they refused to give the data to the authorities. In China, WeChat is directly linked with the Party Communist of China which rules the internet.

The argument for such policies is the creating of an autonomous Russian intranet that would be independent from the global networks, as seen in the “Sovereign Internet bill” in the Russian language may be read on the following website[20]. The rhetoric of independence towards the US-dominated internet institutions is closely related with the authoritarian consolidation. It is very much of a warning even if Yandex and Mail.ru supported this bill: the relation between the Russian internet giants and the Government are close one from another. In China, the intranet is already a reality. Few controversial western websites can be read without a VPN.

On November 2019, a law passed in Russia authorizing it to be cut from the rest of the world[21]. It aims at giving a tight control over the country’s infrastructures by ‘‘routing web traffic through state-controlled infrastructure and creating a national system of domain names[22]’’. Therefore, it legalizes mass surveillance and the pre-eminence of the Central authorities over society. However, experts consider it is technically really hard because all the communication canals should be blocked and it would harm the Russian economy which is highly connected and globalized. It nevertheless means the advent of an authoritarian legal arsenal on the way to China’s model and logics.

It seems to me important to glance about what is at stake with Civil Societies in China and Russia to imagine future evolution. I am arguing that the Russian one is more aware and empowered when it comes to protecting its digital rights, compared with China.

Thirty years ago, China famously was involved in huge repression on the Tiananmen Square, destroying for long the hope of a major change in terms of inner freedom. At the same time began in Soviet Russia the Glasnost, a huge transparency policy movement demanded by the society, which eventually led to the end of the Soviet Union. Remembering the past is useful when trying to compare such countries. Indeed, in Russia, the citizens use the internet as a tool of watchdogs, as arguably the Russian state could not block the access and the diffusion of information as much as in China. In 2018, Russia tried to get the encrypted messaging service Telegram into the framework of this law, but thanks to massive protests (more than 12,000 people on April 30, 2018, in Moscow), it has been allowed despite the law enforcing data collection for companies operating in the country.

It might provoke huge protests the regime, as Russians are used not to be repressed on a daily-life. On the other hand, China never led a potentially dissident information enter in the country through the use of the internet, so the Civil society might be easier to handle for the government, as a notable paper from Andrei Kolesnikov suggests Russia is  « entering a new period of civil and political activity [23]».

CONCLUSION

As the different elements I have just dealt with show, Russia is dangerously going to the Xi’s China model of internet regulation, especially considering the recent law developments. Nonetheless, so far, Russia does not control the internet as much as China does. Further quantitative and qualitative researches should be done in that regard to assessing to what extent Russia goes to the Chinese model or develops its model, by using path dependency theories and comparative policy analysis. Despite some common features, Russia does not share with China all the characteristics of a high-technology level of authoritarian consolidation nor completely oppresses its society on the web. Nonetheless, regarding Politics and repression, in both cases, the internet is a major tool of control.

The evolution of the Russian internet towards the Chinese model will depend on several factors, including but not limited to: the capacity of Putin’s regime to sustain itself; inter elite consensus over the model of society for Russia; the way internal and external threats are perceived by the regime; the technological development of Russia; Civil Society development and mobilization. So far, Putin Russia’s has been strengthening its censorship capacities but recent social mobilization within the 2019 so-called “Moscow case” prevent the regime from consolidating authoritarianism as much as it might need to sustainable its own model.

[1] KING Gary, and others, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression”, American Political Science Review, Harvard University, 2013

[2] Freedom House Report, Freedom on the Net 2018, The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, 2018

[3] OpenNet Initiative “Summarized global Internet filtering data spreadsheet”, 29 October 2012 and “Country Profiles”, the OpenNet Initiative is a collaborative partnership of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto; the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; and the SecDev Group, Ottawa

[4] HAN Rongbin, Manufacturing Consent in Cyberspace: China’s “Fifty-Cent Army’’, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 2/2015: 105–134

[5] LAGERKVIST, Johan (2007), The Internet in China: Unlocking and Containing the Public Sphere, Lund: Lund University.

[6] CRISTENSEN Britt, ‘Cyber state capacity: A model of authoritarian durability, ICTs, and emerging media’, Government Information Quarterly, 2019, p. 460-468

[7] CRISTENSEN Britt, ‘Cyber state capacity: A model of authoritarian durability, ICTs, and emerging media’, Government Information Quarterly, 2019, p. 460-468

[8] ROD, E. G., & WEIDMANN, N. B. (2015). Empowering activists or autocrats? The internet in authoritarian regimes. Journal of Peace Research, 52(3), 338–351.

[9] Kern, H. L., & Hainmueller, J. (2009). Opium of the masses: How foreign media can stabilize authoritarian regimes. Political Analysis, 17, 377–399.

[10] Unknown author, ”China has 829 million online users: Report”, Chinadaily.com, 28/02/2019, accessed online on the 9th of December, 2019 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201902/28/WS5c77a871a3106c65c34ec02b.html

[11] STOCKMANN, Daniela (2013), Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China, New York: Cambridge University Press

[12] LIEBMAN, Benjamin L. “The Media and the Courts: Towards Competitive Supervision?”, China Quarterly 208: 833, 2011, p. 50

[13] MALOVIC Dorian, « Pékin censure (presque) totalement Internet », La Croix 11/01/2019 https://www.la-croix.com/Monde/Asie-et-Oceanie/Pekin-censure-presque-totalement-Internet-2019-01-11-1200994658

[14] LEE, Timothy B, “Vladimir Putin signs sweeping Internet-censorship bills”, Ars Technica, accessed on December 10th, 2019 at https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/03/russia-makes-it-illegal-to-insult-officials-or-publish-fake-news/

[15] Borgen Project, “Internet censorship in Russian and China”, 2019, available at https://borgenproject.org/internet-censorship-in-russia-and-china/

[16] Unknown author, “Anti-Women Blogger’s Hate Speech Sentence Overturned in Russia”, The Moscow Times, March 2019, available at https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/03/22/anti-women-bloggers-hate-speech-sentence-overturned-in-russia-a64915

[17] Kravchenko Stepan, “Putin wants what China’s Xi already has: his own internet”, The Moscow Times, March 2019, available at https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/03/05/putin-wants-what-chinas-xi-already-has-his-own-internet-a64707

[18] Marr Bernard, “Chinese Social Credit Score: Utopian Big Data Bliss Or Black Mirror On Steroids?”, Forbes 2019 available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2019/01/21/chinese-social-credit-score-utopian-big-data-bliss-or-black-mirror-on-steroids/

[19] Fragile State Index 2019, accessed on https://fundforpeace.org/ on December 10th, 2019

[20] Sovereign internet’ bill, « О внесении изменений в Федеральный закон «О связи» и Федеральный закон «Об информации, информационных технологиях и о защите информации» available in Russian at https://sozd.duma.gov.ru/bill/608767-7

[21]SCHULZE Elizabeth, ‘’Russia just brought in a law to try to disconnect its internet from the rest of the world’’, CNBC.com, accessed December 9th, 2019 at https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/01/russia-controversial-sovereign-internet-law-goes-into-force.html

[22] SCHULZE Elizabeth, IBID

[23]KOLESNIKOV Andrei, ‘’ The Split in Russia’s Civil Society’’, Carnegie Moscow Center, 24/04/2019, accessed on December 9th, 2019 at https://carnegie.ru/commentary/79012

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