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Column: Putin Tightens His Grip on Russia’s Internet

Washington

Asked at a media forum in St. Petersburg about Russia’s largest search engine, Yandex, storing its data on servers outside the country, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Internet was originally a “CIA project” and “is still developing as such.”

The former KGB agent is not totally wrong. The Internet does trace its origins back to data-sharing systems developed by U.S. intelligence in the 1980s. (Perhaps Putin has been catching up on the latest season of The Americans, which has to a large extent revolved around Russian spies trying to gain access to the ARPANET, an early version of the Internet developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Between the series and Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard’s brief return to the news cycle, ARPANET is enjoying something of a cultural moment right now.)

Putin’s comments do seem a bit portentous coming just days after Pavel Durov, founder of VKontake, Russia’s largest social networking site, fled the country saying he had been forced to resign as the company’s CEO after he refused to share users’ personal data with the authorities. Durov is facing accusations of embezzlement, a charge the Kremlin has also used against other prominent Kremlin critics.

As Yekaterina Kravtsova of the Moscow Times put it, “The move to oust Durov is widely seen as part of a wider campaign by the Kremlin to tighten its grip on the Internet, and observers said the authorities aimed to ‘cleanse’ the management of Russian Internet companies in the hopes of gaining control of their content.”

Last week the Russian parliament also passed legislation that could require foreign tech companies to store Russian customer data on Russian soil or be barred from operating in the country. The legislation could have serious consequences for U.S. companies including Google, Facebook and Microsoft, which owns Skype. Another new rule will require popular bloggers to register with the government.

Russia is one of a number of countries pushing the idea of “Internet sovereignty”: the notion that governments — rather than multinational corporations based in the United States or U.S.-founded agencies like the ICANN, which is responsible for the Internet’s global domain name system — should have control over their own internal cyberspaces.

Brazil has been at the forefront of the movement; it considered, but eventually dropped, a data storage law similar to the one Russia just passed. And the movement has understandably picked up steam since Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance made it more difficult for the U.S. government to claim it has no interest in interfering with the free movement of information around the globe.

Internet sovereignty might be a little easier to take seriously as a concept if many of the governments that are most enthusiastic about it weren’t so blatantly interested in policing their citizens’ Internet use. Iran, for instance, has been for years pushing a “national Internet” project aimed at keeping unwelcome outside influences from reaching its citizens.

Until recently, Russia wasn’t really one of these countries. While state control over the media was fairly extensive, the Russian Internet was fairly unfettered, with few restrictions on political content on sites like VKontake and LiveJournal.

Following the Arab Spring and the protests surrounding Putin’s return to the presidency, things started to change. In 2012 a law was passed making it easier for the government to shut down offending websites. It was billed as a way to crack down on child pornography — one lawmaker memorably blamed opposition to it on the “pedophile lobby” — but other countries have used similar laws in the past as a pretext for making it easier to block political content. Last December another law was passed making it easier to block websites that promote “extremism.”

Despite what Putin told Edward Snowden recently, the Russian president’s recent comments and his government’s recent moves seem to suggest that the Kremlin’s role in monitoring and managing the Russian Internet is going to become quite a bit more hands-on.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate.