How Russia has spent a decade crumbling online freedoms
The Kremlin has been eroding internet freedom since 2012. The last 18 months have been especially harsh.
Aleksandr Litreev was on a way to a business meeting last February when his life changed forever. En route to a hotel in Yakaterinburg, a day's drive east of Moscow, Litreev was pulled over by police. When they asked him to hand over his phone, the then-24-year-old knew it was no routine traffic stop.
"They took me to a police station," Litreev recalls, "and magically some drugs appear." Litreev said he was arrested by around 10 armed policemen, beaten into confessing to ecstasy possession, and then detained for a month. He managed to flee to Estonia after being released into house arrest.
Litreev is a member of Russia's liberal opposition. Rather than rousing people to the ballot box, he builds internet tools that help everyday Russians fight against an increasingly controlling state. As part of the tightest squeeze on freedoms in Russia this century, critical online media publications have been labeled foreign agents, and platforms like Twitter and Facebook are being pressured to purge their platforms of content the Kremlin disapproves of.
With Russia's parliamentary elections running on Sept. 17 through Sept. 19, the Kremlin has stepped up censorship. It's demanded keywords associated with the opposition be blocked from Google and Yandex, the domestic search giant, and that Google and Apple kick an opposition-made app from their app stores.
Litreev has been fighting back for years, creating an app that sends lawyers to defend arrested protesters and joining the "digital resistance" that countered the government's attempt to block encrypted-messenger Telegram.
"If I go back to Russia now, I will get something like lifetime imprisonment," Litreev said. "Not gonna happen."
Before fleeing to Estonia, Litreev also worked with Alexei Navalny, who, for the last 10 years, has been the face of Russia's opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Navalny was poisoned by Russian spies in August 2020 and has since been jailed. Navalny's case shows how the Kremlin has lost any of the patience it once had: He was tolerated for nearly a decade -- as a popular blogger, investigative journalist and later an opposition politician -- before authorities attempted to eliminate him altogether.
"The things that are happening now have never happened before," said Litreev, explaining that authorities poisoning an opposition candidate would have been inconceivable as recently as 2017. "And now we're here."
In 2017, Litreev made his first significant venture into opposition politics. A YouTube expose from Navalny alleged that then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had embezzled over $1.2 billion, sparking protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg that turned into a general rebuke of widespread corruption and political repression.
Litreev's contribution was an app called Red Button. If protesters thought they were at risk of arrest, they could open the app and press the big red button it presented. That would automatically call a lawyer, who also receives the protester's emergency contact details and aof their location.
"It's basically Uber, but for a lawyer," Litreev said. It was used extensively by demonstrators at the time, which got the attention of Kremlin authorities. "That's the point where pressure on me started," he added.
Litreev, then 21 and fresh out of university, was motivated to join the opposition movement as he watched the Kremlin ratchet up internet restrictions. A 2014 law allowed the telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, to block access to online media that called for "unsanctioned mass public events." In 2016, Putin signed a bill requiring telecommunications companies to store their customers' text messages and phone calls for up to six months.
The law was used as a pretext to, a platform created by eccentric Russian-born developer Pavel Durov that doubles as an instant messenger and a social media platform. (Durov is now based in Dubai.) It allows for encrypted messages between people, like WhatsApp, but also for public figures and groups to create "channels" that can have millions of followers. Russian authorities wanted control over Telegram, and stopping them became Litreev's next project.
In 2018, the Kremlin ordered Durov to hand over keys that would allow the FSB, the successor to the Soviet KGB, to unscramble the app's encrypted messages. Roskomnadzor's stated goal was to fight terrorist attacks, like a 2017 train bombing in St. Petersburg, which it claimed were spreading thanks to Telegram and apps like it. Durov refused, calling the request both unconstitutional and technically untenable. What followed was a game of hide-and-seek that lasted for two years.
Roskomnadzor banned Telegram in April 2018, pulling down the app's servers. Scores of Russian internet users -- dubbed the Digital Resistance -- countered by hosting Telegram on proxy servers, which Roskomnadzor found and banned too. For his part, Litreev helped create software that deployed millions of proxy servers at once, making it impossible for Russian authorities to manually pull them down individually.
"They got tired of banning IP address by IP address, so they started to ban whole subnetworks, ranges of IP addresses," he said. "At some point, when we got our service hosted on Amazon and on Google Cloud, they accidentally banned a huge subnet which belongs to Google."
Those attempts to ban Telegram were unsuccessful. Not only did the service remain accessible, its Russian user base actually grew. Meanwhile, with authorities hastily banning up to 19 million IP addresses, Google and Amazon services were briefly unusable throughout Russia.
Roskomnadzor had a choice: either block a huge range of IP addresses and risk more catastrophic blackouts, or rescind the ban on Telegram. "It was a fight for all or nothing," Litreev said.
After two years, Roskomnadzor relented, lifting its Telegram ban last June on the grounds that the company would help it with terrorism inquiries in the future. The Digital Resistance won this battle, the latest in a war that had been going on since 2012.
The first ruling
Russia is often grouped with China as a troublesome autocracy. A common misconception related to this comparison is that Russia has always had a fiercely censored internet. But unlike China's internet, which was built from the ground up not to rely on Western companies or users, Russia's internet largely grew freely from the mid-'90s.
That began to change in 2012, when Putin became president for the second time.
Much like the US, Russian presidents were bound by the constitution to serve no more than two consecutive four-year terms. So in 2008, when Putin swapped places with Dmitry Medvedev, becoming prime minister while Medvedev assumed the presidency, many suspected it was a ploy to circumvent constitutional limits. Those suspicions were confirmed when he announced his intention to run as president again in 2011.
When Putin's United Russia party retained a majority in the parliamentary elections two months later -- elections local monitors and the EU said were fraudulent -- protests erupted. Tens of thousands demanded free elections and the release of political prisoners. But what concerned the Kremlin wasn't the demonstrators, but how they managed to organize themselves. These protests were the biggest the country had seen since the '90s, and they were powered by social media.
"The driving force back then was the internet -- social media, Facebook and Twitter," said Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and co-author of The Red Web, a book that details Russia's tightening grip on internet freedoms. "That was the moment the Kremlin started paying attention to this new threat, and it was absolutely clear that it was the big thing for years to come."
Online freedoms began unraveling a month after Putin took office in 2012. The Russian Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly) started drafting an internet restriction bill that lawmakers claimed was necessary to protect minors from child sexual abuse material, online drug markets and content that encouraged self harm. In practice, it allowed government authorities to create an internet blacklist.
Roskomnadzor now had legal cover to pull down websites it didn't like. Today, the internet in Russia is still markedly more open than it is in countries like China, Egypt and Vietnam. But Russia's strategy of censorship is more subtle, focused less on suppressing speech than on oppressing competition.
"The idea is not to prevent you from getting information," Soldatov said. "The idea is to discourage you from participating in political activities of any kind, online or offline."
The Kremlin's aversion to political opposition explains why political protests are often followed by a tightening of controls. The Moscow demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 led to the first internet restriction bill, and Telegram was targeted in 2018 after protests were organized on the platform.
Then, in 2019, the opposition began translating online engagement into electoral victories.
A new era
Activists, journalists and opposition politicians had proven adept at maneuvering around the digital barriers the Kremlin had been throwing up since 2012. Navalny continued to use his prominent online platform to trouble authorities. Though demonized on state TV, many of his YouTube documentaries on shadowy Kremlin activities racked up hundreds of millions of views. Older Russians who regularly watched Russian television thought Navalny was a menace. Many middle-class, internet-savvy Russians, however, were receptive to his cause.
Though the Kremlin punished Navalny in various ways, convicting him on trumped-up fraud charges and barring him from running for office, authorities showed some restraint in suppressing his movement.
"Navalny was tolerated for a decade," said William Partlett, a professor at Melbourne Law School who researches post-Soviet societies and is authoring a book on Navalny. "He was exposing high-level corruption among very important, powerful people in the inner circle of the Kremlin. And he was allowed to do that, and I think the idea was, 'we can manage this guy.'"
That changed in 2019. Navalny, unable to run for Moscow city council himself, encouraged his followers to adopt the "smart voting" doctrine. It meant voting for anyone other than the ruling United Russia party, be they liberals, avowed communists or hardcore nationalists. The plan worked: The "systemic opposition" won 20 of Moscow's 45 seats, reducing the United Russia Party's majority from 38 to 25.
The same system was used successfully in regional elections, ousting three United Russia governors. In a world where freedom of expression is fine up until the point where it infringes on Kremlin control, this was all unacceptable. Navalny's opposition movement was powered by online platforms, from Telegram to Twitter, and now it was producing tangible offline results.
"Now the question for Putin becomes, is the internet manageable?" Partlett said.
The Kremlin cracked down hard. An online libel law was enacted last December, allowing sites to be blocked and people to be jailed for "defaming" public figures. Specific activists and journalists have been targeted: one journalist was jailed for 25 days for retweeting a photo that carried the date and time of a planned protest, while a video of police violently interrogating blogger Gennady Shulga was leaked by the police themselves, Shulga said, "to show people what the authorities can do."
Navalny's treatment played out in front of the world. He was poisoned in an airport in August 2020, then flown to Berlin, where he recuperated. After returning to Russia, he was immediately imprisoned. Meanwhile, Putin amended the constitution in April to allow him to rule as president until 2036.
Taking on big tech
Litreev talks about his exploits like a nimble David outmaneuvering a lumbering, sluggish Goliath. He knows the battle will be perilous but expects he and his fellow activists will ultimately prevail.
"The level of expertise and level of professionalism on the government side is much lower than our side," he said.
Litreev points to a spat between Twitter and Kremlin as evidence. In March, Roskomnadzor demanded Twitter take down thousands of tweets dating back to 2017 that encouraged illegal activity -- which includes child porn, drug markets and, of course, news stories related to opposition candidates. To motivate Twitter to fulfill the request, the telecoms regulator throttled Twitter's speed for months.
But, in a flashback to the Roskomnadzor inadvertently blocking Google amid a clumsy attempt to ban Telegram, sites like Reddit.com and Microsoft.com went down too. People realized that authorities had targeted the "t.co" link-shortening formation Twitter uses, which clobbered any website that ended with the letter "t."
It was a conspicuous fumble on the part of Roskomnadzor, but authorities did manage to isolate and slow down Twitter. The initial missteps masked the use of a concerning new suite of powers that had been signed into law in 2019, called "the sovereign internet," or RuNet.
The law requires ISPs to connect a new range of state hardware to internet exchange points. These "big red boxes" all direct to a control center in Moscow and allow the Kremlin to manage the flow of traffic from one region of the country to another. The system has been called a "digital Iron Curtain," akin to China's Great Firewall that separates its internet from the rest of the world.
Soldatov says this comparison is inaccurate. The Kremlin isn't interested in isolating itself from the rest of the internet, he says, since that would prove economically ruinous. Rather, it's a tool to control the flow of information from one region of the country to the next.
"The sovereign internet was never about the West. It's about what's going on inside the country," he said. "The most sensitive content is generated inside the country."
Roskomnadzor was able to pair the new sovereign internet hardware with existing data surveillance technology to selectively slow Twitter traffic. In the future, the Kremlin could use the same technology to, for example, throttle certain apps to prevent livestreams from a protest in Moscow from reaching other parts of the country.
It was the government's first known experiment with its newest online tools -- and it worked.
Twitter has removed over 6,000 tweets, according to Roskomnadzor. In the months since, Russian authorities have demanded Facebook take down content, fined Google $81,000 for not taking down content, and told Facebook and Twitter to store all data of Russian users within the country. On Aug. 26, Twitter and Facebook were both fined for not storing such data quickly enough.
Facebook, Google and Twitter declined to comment. Roskomnadzor was contacted but didn't respond.
Just as the Kremlin pressures Facebook, Google and Twitter, it fosters local substitutes like RuTube, a YouTube alternative owned by the state gas company. Law requires Android phones to come preloaded with 16 Russian-made apps, including the VK social media app and the Yandex search engine, while Apple is required to prompt Russians to download the apps during the setup process of new iPhones. It's part of a plan meant to better allow authorities to control online platforms so that anti-Kremlin content can't go viral.
"The tools the Russian government uses are evolving with time. They are much more advanced if we compare them to, say, 2018," Litreev acknowledged. "But modern problems require modern solutions."
The modern problems
Litreev's latest project is Solar Labs, a decentralized VPN that's based on blockchain and incentivized with cryptocurrency. The Solar Labs platform will allow people around the world to host their own VPN servers, for which they'll be paid with Solar Labs cryptocurrency tokens. If enough people from a variety of countries host their own VPN servers, it'll be impossible for all servers to be taken down at once.
"Even if the government will do whatever it takes to block our service, they will not succeed unless they just shut the whole internet for the whole country," he said. Solar Labs is designed to be useful not just for Russians, but also Iranians, Chinese and Belarussians, all of whom face strict internet censorship.
Litreev says the Kremlin's crackdowns on activists, journalists and dissidents are acts of hysteria. The more extreme the measure, the more desperation it reflects.
And the measures have gotten extreme. It's not just in Russia, either. In May, Belarus' ruler, who's closely aligned with Putin, used military force to ground a RyanAir plane midflight. The whole region's rules are being rewritten.
Litreev wants to go home to see old faces and places, but says people like him need to work to create a safe Russia. He hopes that Solar Labs' VPN, which launches in September, will be part of that process. Meanwhile, Litreev feels safe in Estonia -- though he makes sure any flights he takes avoid both Russian and Belarusian airspace.
Soldatov, living in London, is less hopeful. He said he was optimistic five years ago, when he co-authored The Red Web, but that the events since then have sapped his confidence.
"We use this word, 'unprecedented,'" he said. "The problem when something is unprecedented is you cannot calculate your risks, because you do not know where they are going to stop."