Kremlin steps up online censorship in order to silence last opposition voices ahead of presidential election

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the new Chinese-inspired laws regulating the “Runet,” the Russian Internet,” which the Kremlin has imposed in the run-up to the bogus presidential election in order to silence dissent and prevent Russians from accessing reliable online reporting.

Ads about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and websites providing information about using VPNs to circumvent online censorship are now banned and criminalised under a new law that took effect on 1 March 2024.

Western social media such as Facebook and tens of thousands of websites have been censored by the Russian government under the pretext of “protecting its digital space against external influences” since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But to the dismay of the authorities, this prompted a big increase in the use of VPNs.

In its desire to increase control, the Russian media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has reportedly stepped up blocking tests using methods directly recommended by its Chinese neighbour. On 27 February, for example, Russian citizens found websites and applications that are permitted in Russia, including YouTube, WhatsApp, and VKontakte (Russia's Facebook), were blocked. Then, several officially banned platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and X, were inexplicably accessible (without VPN) for several hours.

In the light of these restrictions, the independent Russian exile media outlet Meduza has warned that there could be Internet cuts during the elections, as there have been in several regions that recently suffered outages.

“The Kremlin is strengthening its digital borders for the bogus presidential election. The law criminalising the promotion of VPNs marks a new step towards total digital censorship, while Roskomnadzor is perfecting its blocking methods in order to muzzle the last dissenting voices. We are concerned about the danger of a big shift towards Chinese-style Internet control, with the brazen construction of a great wall around the ‘Runet,’ the sovereign Russian Internet.

Jeanne Cavelier
Head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk

Online censorship law

Combatting VPNs is not Roskomnadzor’s only obsession. On 28  February, the Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower house, passed a law banning Russian citizens and companies from relaying advertising from sources designated as “foreign agents” on the Internet and on all other digital platforms.

Several independent journalists, of whom few remain in Russia, have reported the closure of their YouTube channels. They include Alexey Pivovarov’s Redaktsiya (with 4.11 million followers) and Ekaterina Gordeevoy’s Skazhi Gordeevoy (with 1.65 million followers). It was a victory for Duma president Vyacheslav Volodin, who on 5 March welcomed this draconian law’s first results and the ongoing discussions to ban copyright royalties for artists, musicians and writers deemed to be “foreign agents.”

Runet censorship is also exercised by means of legal constraints imposed on international Internet hosting companies, which are now subject to a law requiring foreign IT firms operating in Russia to open a subsidiary there. Since 1 February, their activities are prohibited if they do not comply with this rule. By the end of January, no foreign hosting provider had so far taken steps to legalise their activities within Russia and some have simply ceased their operations there. Such is the case with the German host Hetzner Online, which terminated all contracts with its Russian users on 31 January, including, an investigative media outlet whose editorial staff have relocated abroad.

Mirror sites to circumvent blocking

To circumvent the Kremlin's censorship of the Russian Internet, RSF is using its Operation Collateral Freedom, under which mirror sites can be very quickly created to provide access to blocked news sites. For example, RSF has unblocked the most widely-read Russian exile news media, Meduza, as well as the Russian-language sites of the German and French public broadcasters Deutsche Welle and Radio France Internationale (RFI). All of the links of the mirror sites created by this operation are available at this link.

Russia is ranked 164th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

The Kremlin has stepped up censorship since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, including in the occupied territories, and the spread of false information has surged, reinforcing the need to support independent Russian journalists who have fled abroad.

162/ 180
Score : 29.86
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