How Russia built its digital Iron Curtain 'Black boxes' installed at telecom providers give authorities sweeping powers to block, filter and slow down websites

Asia's Tech News Daily
online version of this story, The New York Times

An image of President Vladimir Putin appears on a video screen on the outskirts of Moscow. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Russia’s boldest moves to censor the internet began in the most mundane of ways — with a series of bureaucratic emails and forms.

The messages, sent by Russia’s powerful internet regulator, demanded technical details — like traffic numbers, equipment specifications and connection speeds — from companies that provide internet and telecommunications services across the country. Then the black boxes arrived.

The telecom companies had no choice but to step aside as government-approved technicians installed the equipment alongside their own computer systems and servers. Sometimes caged behind lock and key, the new gear linked back to a command centre in Moscow, giving authorities startling new powers to block, filter and slow down websites that they did not want the Russian public to see.

The process, under way since 2019, represents the start of perhaps the world’s most ambitious digital censorship effort outside of China. Under President Vladimir Putin, who once called the internet a “CIA project” and views the web as a threat to his power, the Russian government is attempting to bring the country’s once open and freewheeling internet to heel.

The gear has been tucked inside the equipment rooms of Russia’s largest telecom and internet service providers, including Rostelecom, MTS, MegaFon and Vympelcom, a senior Russian lawmaker revealed this year. It affects the vast majority of the country’s more than 120 million wireless and home internet users, according to researchers and activists.

The world got its first glimpse of Russia’s new tools in action when Twitter was slowed to a crawl in the country this spring. It was the first time the filtering system had been put to work, researchers and activists said. Other sites have since been blocked, including several linked to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“This is something the world can copycat,” said Laura Cunningham, the former head of US State Department programmes on internet freedom. “Russia’s censorship model can quickly and easily be replicated by other authoritarian governments.”

Russia’s censorship technology sits between companies that provide internet access and people who are browsing the web on a phone or laptop. Often likened to intercepting mailed letters, the software — known as “deep packet inspection” — filters through data traveling across an internet network, slowing down websites or removing whatever it has been programmed to block.

(In its online version of this story, The Times demonstrates how an image from a tweet about a protest in Moscow takes 4 seconds to load under normal conditions, but 34 seconds if a user in Russia attempts to open it.)

The cutoffs threaten to upend Russia’s thriving digital life. While the political system has clung to Putin’s cult of personality and television broadcasters and newspapers face tight restrictions, online culture has brimmed with activism, dark humour and foreign content. Broadly censoring the internet could return the country to a deeper form of isolation, akin to the Cold War era.

“I was born in the era of a super-free internet, and now I’m seeing it collapsing,” said Ksenia Ermoshina, a researcher from Russia now working at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

She published a paper in April about the censorship technology.

The censorship infrastructure was described by 17 Russian telecom experts, activists, researchers and academics with knowledge of the work, many of whom declined to be named because they feared reprisal. Government documents, which were reviewed by The New York Times, also outlined some of the technical details and demands made to telecom and internet service providers.

Russia is using the censorship technology to gain more leverage over Western internet companies in addition to other strong-arm tactics and legal intimidation. In September, after the government threatened to arrest local employees for Google and Apple, the companies removed apps run by supporters of Navalny ahead of national elections.

Roskomnadzor, the country’s internet regulator overseeing the effort, can now go further. It has threatened to take down YouTube, Facebook and Instagram if they do not block certain content on their own. After authorities slowed down Twitter this year, the company agreed to remove dozens of posts deemed illegal by the government.

Russia’s censorship efforts have faced little resistance. In the United States and Europe, once full-throated champions of an open internet, leaders have been largely silent amid deepening distrust of Silicon Valley and attempts to regulate the worst internet abuses themselves. Russian authorities have pointed to the West’s tech industry regulation to justify its own crackdown.

“It’s striking that this hasn’t gotten the attention of the Biden administration,” said Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration.

He criticised Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter for not speaking out more forcefully against Russia’s policies.

A White House spokeswoman said the administration has discussed freedom of expression online with the Russian government and also called on the Kremlin to “stop its pressure campaign to censor critics.”

In a statement, Roskomnadzor did not address its filtering technology but said foreign social networks have continued ignoring Russian internet laws, which prohibit incitement and content on topics that “split the state,” such as drug use and extremist organisations.

“Russian legislation in the field of media and information does not allow censorship,” it said, adding that the law “clearly defines the types of content that are harmful and pose a threat” to citizens.

Google, which owns YouTube, and Twitter declined to comment. Apple did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Facebook did not address Russia specifically but said it was “committed to respecting the human rights of all those who use our products.”

Rostelecom, one of Russia’s largest internet service providers, referred questions to Roskomnadzor. MegaFon declined to comment. MTS and Vympelcom did not respond to requests for comment.

Many question whether Russia has the technical expertise or political will to cut off major online sources of entertainment, information and work for its citizens. In 2018, before the new censorship technology was in place, authorities abandoned an effort to shut down the popular messaging service Telegram because of technical problems and public anger. Many see YouTube as a future target because of its use by independent media and critics of the Kremlin, which could cause a backlash.

Yet internet access is increasingly used as an instrument of political power. In recent years, governments in India, Myanmar, Ethiopia and elsewhere have used internet blackouts to stifle pockets of dissent. Russia had internet shutdowns during anti-government protests in the southern region of Ingushetia in 2018 and Moscow in 2019.

China has provided inspiration. For years, Russian politicians held talks with Chinese officials about making their own Great Firewall, once even meeting with the architect of the filters that block foreign sites. In 2019, during China’s World Internet Conference, Roskomnadzor signed an agreement with its Chinese analogue pledging tighter government controls over the internet.

But unlike China, which has three state-run telecoms that get people online, Russia has thousands of internet providers, which makes it more difficult to censor. That’s where the black boxes come in, giving government officials a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer for the filtering of specific websites and services without cutting off all access. (Story continues below)

online version of this story, The New York Times

Riot police seal off streets ahead of protests in support of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny in Moscow on April 21. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Russia has a long history of censorship. For decades, international phone lines were restricted and radio jammers obstructed foreign broadcasts. The state still tightly controls television.

The internet was different. It was credited with playing a role in bringing Boris Yeltsin to power in 1991 by allowing pro-democracy groups inside Russia and beyond to coordinate and exchange information. In the ensuing years, fiber-optic cables were laid to connect the country to the global internet.

Putin has tried putting that genie back in the bottle. Surveillance systems monitor people’s online activities, and some bloggers have been arrested. In 2012, the country passed a law requiring internet service providers to block thousands of banned websites, but it was hard to enforce and many sites remained available.

In May 2019, Putin signed off on a new phase: a “sovereign internet” law that forced internet providers to install “technical means of countering threats” — equipment loaded with software for the government to track, filter and reroute internet traffic without any involvement or knowledge from the companies.

The law created a registry of transnational internet cables entering the country and key exchange points where internet networks in Russia connect. This map makes it easier for authorities to shut down parts of the network, experts said.

Since then, hundreds of companies have received orders from Roskomnadzor. The regulator has demanded information about the companies’ computer systems and what settings must be used to allow a government body, the Center for Monitoring and Management of Public Communications Networks, to remotely access their networks, according to documents shared with The Times.

Then government-approved contractors installed the filtering equipment, allowing the regulator to block, slow or redirect traffic, said Mikhail Klimarev, an industry analyst who has worked with Russian internet firms such as Rostelecom.

“A blocking system is installed at the border of every Russian internet provider,” he said.

The technology is now at 500 locations of telecom operators, covering 100% of mobile internet traffic and 73% of broadband traffic, a Russian official involved in the programme said Wednesday. By next year, the technology will be inside more than 1,000 locations, the official said.

The filtering technology is made by companies including RDP.ru, a Russian provider of telecommunications technology with ties to the government, according to University of Michigan researchers and Russian telecom experts.

On RDP’s website, it boasts of offering “high-performance URL filtering of prohibited sites” that allow operators to comply with Russian laws. The company sells products in Belarus and Kazakhstan, countries where human rights groups have documented internet censorship.

RDP.ru did not respond to a request for comment.

Attacking Twitter, which is not widely popular in Russia, was a “crucial moment,” said Andrei Soldatov, co-author of The Red Web, a book about the Russian internet. University of Michigan researchers measured the connection was slowed by about 87%, only slightly better than cellular networks from the early 2000s.

“It showed they had this capability and could use it,” Soldatov said.

This article originally appeared online in The New York Times

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