The Kremlin’s 21st-century thought police

Nov 14, 2012
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Earlier this month, Russia’s controversial new Internet blacklist law went into effect, raising serious concerns from bloggers, activists, and human rights watchers. The law, with the particularly Orwellian name “On Amendments to Federal Law On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development and Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation”, officially gives Kremlin agencies the legal right for deep surveillance of its citizenry. It serves as an example of how Russia came up with a solution for the so-called “Dictator’s Dilemma” - a theory that describes how repressive governments facing technological progress have two choices: either democratize and prosper, or suppress freedoms and retain control but fall behind economically.

Pointing children in the right direction

The law introduces a central registry that is supposed to hold an ultimate – and secret – list of websites flagged as offensive. The registry is run by Roskomnadzor (the Agency for the Supervision of Information Technology, Communications and Mass Media), which also compiles data from other Russian intelligence agencies for their reports. A detailed analysis of the law was written by investigative journalists from agentura.ru, who themselves have felt the sting of the Kremlin’s censorship whip on their own skin. They also said that Roskomnadzor would mediate between websites not willing to cooperate in removing their content and ISPs who would block them.

The actual implementation of the central registry was not outlined in the law, but the Ministry of Communications and Internet corporations active in Russia agreed that the only way is by using a deep-packet inspection system.

Photo courtesy max_trudo. Creative Commons

DPI is just a convenient name for examining the entirety of packets of information as they travel through the network, as opposed to just monitoring superficial detail such as the header or the destination.  It includes reading the information about Internet Protocol and the body of a packet. Reading the body is important for the government as it contains files, messages, passwords and anything that a user sends over the network for any purpose. Basically, if the Internet were a post office, this law would give the Kremlin the power and the tools to open every letter and package at will without telling either the sender or recipient.

And as if the threat of government censorship wasn’t bad enough, what about the possibility of increased spam or having your personal info–like what websites you visit–sold to a marketing agency? In Russia, Internet infrastructure and services are mainly supplied by private companies. And with the implicit legalization of DPI and the government’s inevitable cooperation with these companies, the new law makes it entirely possible for these companies to also gain access to an unprecedented wealth of user data that could then be used for private data collection, targeted advertising, and various other commercial uses.

It is worth noting that deep-packet inspection technologies are also being used for completely legitimate reasons as well. For instance, it’s used to optimize network traffic by giving more priority to certain systems or certain user actions over others (for example, opening a website is given higher bandwidth priority than a download, especially on mobile devices) for ensuring the faster delivery of content. A recent report forecasts 34-percent DPI market growth a year until 2016 with the product revenue surpassing $600 million in 2012.

For the safety of a citizen

The last decade has been especially fertile for global growth in governmental surveillance of communications. Since 9/11, governments have had a good argument for how far can they go in monitoring, censoring, and altering the communication networks. And for many governments, the Arab Spring made open communication for the purpose of citizens’ self-organization even more alarming.

The growth in surveillance systems in Russia began in 2007, according to an openDemocrary report. The higher rate of surveillance lead to the government closing down its operations in Chechnya, but the growth of government-initiated hacking efforts did not stop. In fact, it has since been backed by new laws that are formulated to give eight government agencies the official right to undertake investigative operations and take action with a lower threshold for individual privacy rights. This DPI law is just the latest in a long streak of these laws.

Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer who serves as oppositional MP, pointed out that the Russian government’s current practices are way over the line even according to the standards of what the KGB used to do where such operations were under one department. “… now we have a whole bunch of security agencies, they all have their own surveillance departments, and it’s difficult to tell who’s watching whom and who’s bugging whom”, he told openDemocracy. The KGB’s System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM), which consists of technologies developed in the late 80s and early 90s for monitoring telephone and Internet communications, will used along with the DPI technologies to enforce this new Russian surveillance state law.

Despite all these measures, Russia is not that far out of sync with some of their counterparts in the “authoritarian” East and the “liberal” West who also seem intent on setting records for privacy-rights abuses.

The United States employs “1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies on programs related to counterterrorism”, according to a massive Washington Post investigation, who often make decisions  based on a system that produces noise on a large scale while filtering very little true signal. That is especially true in the case of government ex-employees turned dissidents. On the other side of the globe, Harvard’s analysis of China’s censorship activities on the Internet empirically showed how government selectively suppresses any type (pro- or anti-government) of potentially popular movements. Google noted in their Transparency Report on Tuesday that “governments want more data about Google users and want more content posted by Google users removed” and concluded that “government surveillance is on the rise.”

The Dictator’s Dilemma

The “Dictator’s Dilemma” is a term that was popularized in a PhD dissertation by Christopher Kedzie on the role of technology in the democratization process. He defines it as a dilemma on “how to benefit from the global economy without relinquishing domestic control”. It outlines a simple theoretical idea, which is that if people are not allowed to communicate, access information and thus exercise their freedom, the country will fall behind in the global rat race. On the other hand, if a society is free it will prosper economically but a decentralization of thought and power will occur.

The fall of Soviet Union that formed Russia is also attributed with having a liberating character of free flow of information that supposedly allowed citizens to organize and takeover dictatorships. Gorbachev is cited as having spoken about the futility of an attempt to isolate a society in the globalized world of 1988. Just two years later, the Rolling Stones rocked Prague as a symbol of internationalization and marked an end of decades of decay of Czechoslovakia.

However, the theory also presents a few counter-examples of the dilemma. The Iranian revolution installed a fundamentalist Islamic state, and China created an authoritarian state. These cases are examples of when a mass uprising characterized by high-illiteracy rates, are organized with the help of technology for the “wrong” agenda. Overthrowing previous rulers and going from one extreme to the other, they serve as a lesson to the West and progressives about just how dangerous technology can be for liberty.

Michael Ignatieff, an academic, journalist, and politician, tried to define the ultimate Western attitude towards oppressive regimes like Chinese and Russia. He argues that history is on nobody’s side and that historical inevitability of liberal societies should not be something taken for granted. However, he argues that it makes sense to support and help those who “campaign for the rule of law” or those who fight for laws that protect basic human rights.
The Dictator’s Solution?

But what happens when the law itself is oppressive as it is the case of the Russian law that “protects children” through technology?

Moreover, the emerging role of private companies in helping the government to monitor (for example in Russia, Germany, the USA, and elsewhere) emerge as a pattern for the question of justifying control. The role of public-private partnerships, commercial and public-service goals, and exploited human rights values lead to the relativization of a threat represented by these laws. So, the law that censors sites for the sake of protecting children and to make mobile networks more efficient can then be promoted and argued for, despite its potential for repressive control that the government can enact with such tools.

With that in mind, it can be argued that the Russian DPI law is one of the legal parts of the Dictator’s Solution. Namely, a solution that solves the problem of Dictator’s Dilemma by clouding it with the progressive case of liberty through technology (here children’s safety) and disorientating citizens as to why their activity is being monitored and by whom.


About the Author

Ernad Halilovic

Ernad Halilovic is a TOL Editorial Intern. He studies Humanities and Computer Science in Prague.
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