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Interview: Will The Russian Internet Resemble China’s ‘Great Firewall’?

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Russia’s outlawing of Facebook and Instagram after declaring the activities of the sites’ parent company, Meta Platforms, as “extremist” is part of a broadening crackdown on free speech inside the country since Moscow’s war with Ukraine started last month.

The full implications of the March 21 Moscow court ruling are unclear and the case originates in part from Meta’s decision earlier this month to allow some calls for violence against Russian soldiers and President Vladimir Putin on its platforms.`

But the decision fits into a wider campaign being waged by the Kremlin against big tech and ongoing efforts to control the flow of information that has accelerated since Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

In addition to targeting foreign platforms, the Kremlin has also gone after foreign news organizations, leading many to pull out of the country. (RFE/RL suspended its operations in the country on March 4.) Russian authorities have also passed new laws that criminalize public statements about Ukraine that do not align with the Kremlin’s official view of what it calls the “special military operation.”

The growing crackdown could have major implications for the future of civil society and an open Internet inside Russia and has echoes of the beginning of the vast Internet censorship system built inside China known as the “Great Firewall.”

Initially, China’s firewall blocked only a handful of anti-Communist Party Chinese-language websites and it was relatively easy to circumvent the blockage and access the forbidden sites, but its scope has since grown into a wider mechanism aimed at restricting all types of content, identifying and locating individuals, and providing immediate access to personal records.

Could the future of Russia’s Internet more closely resemble China’s system? To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with Jessica Brandt, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies digital authoritarianism and disinformation in Russia and China.

RFE/RL: Russia declared that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is an “extremist organization.” What does this mean for the future of the country’s information space and free access to information in the future inside Russia?

Jessica Brandt:
 Russia has been ranked low on measures of openness for some time, but its recent steps to constrain the activities of Western social media platforms and to clamp down on expressions of dissent have really taken a toll on freedom of information within Russia.

"China has what is known as the "Great Firewall" [and] China really tries to dominate digital distribution channels [with] national champions of its own," Brandt says.
China has what is known as the “Great Firewall” [and] China really tries to dominate digital distribution channels [with] national champions of its own,” Brandt says.

I think one thing that’s important to note is that Russia [has generally] been fairly measured — or calculating — in the way that it has pursued its clampdown on big tech. For example, it has blocked Facebook and Instagram but has made exceptions for WhatsApp, and it has threatened Google but has kept YouTube relatively unrestricted. Now, WhatsApp and YouTube are channels that are much more frequently used among the Russian population for coordination and for sharing information than, for example, Facebook and YouTube.

RFE/RL: So where does that mean that Russia is headed? Do you think that Russia is drifting closer to China and converging with the censorship and restrictions that we’ve seen there? Russian officials have often mentioned the idea of a sovereign Internet and this crisis seems to mark an important moment. Could Russia have its own version of the “Great Firewall”?

Jessica Brandt
Jessica Brandt

Brandt: Russia has had a tightly controlled information space for a long time, but it’s [still] a much different picture than in China. There has been independent media in Russia [and] there is access to Western social media platforms. That’s just not the case in China. I think recent moves are taking [Russia] closer to the China model, but I think there are still significant differences.

There’s a lot of talk about how Moscow’s crackdown on big tech is accelerating a splintering of the Internet — and I think that’s the case — but right now what we’re seeing is that [it’s] splintering primarily at the content layer, which is very different than splintering at the sort of fundamental architecture of the Internet.

China has really pioneered that path and Russia may seek to follow it, but I think there are lots of reasons to think that it’s not quite capable of doing that right now. It just doesn’t have the chip capacity, and recent moves to sanction Russia will make it only harder for it to access the technology that it needs to do that.

So I think there are ways in which this is taking Russia down a Chinese path, but I think there are differences that persist.

RFE/RL: What are some of those differences?

Brandt:
 Russia has put in place in recent weeks a set of laws that would criminalize so-called disinformation about the conflict with Ukraine, and what we’re really talking about there is [actually] criminalizing the use of the word “war,” the use of the word “invasion.” This is not about spreading disinformation. This is about [limiting] the ability to speak truth to power and freedom of expression.

So [the Russian government] has closed the space for public conversation and for dissent, but not entirely in the way that China has.

People attend an opposition rally in Moscow in March 2019 to protest against Internet censorship.
People attend an opposition rally in Moscow in March 2019 to protest against Internet censorship.

China has what is known as the “Great Firewall” [and] China really tries to dominate digital distribution channels [with] national champions of its own, and it has social media platforms of its own that are widely used. Russia has some of that, but just not at the same scale.

So I think some of that [gap] is the technological prowess that China has and [how] it [designed] its Internet at the start towards this end.

Today, Russia may see the benefits [of China’s model] because I think Putin, very much like [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping], is primarily concerned with regime stability and preserving his own grip on power. I think he can very much see the utility of a tightly controlled information space, but he doesn’t have the technological capacity to get there. [Also] he does have a population that expects a certain amount of space to access Western information sources and to communicate with one another.

RFE/RL: Russia is becoming more isolated and more authoritarian as a result of the war in Ukraine. When it comes to tech, despite its statements of self-reliance, it does depend a great deal on Western tech for a whole host of industries, but especially for social media and communications. Does this inevitably mean that Russia will have to look to Chinese alternatives as well as standards and models in the future?

Brandt:
 I think it’s very likely that this series of events will increase Russia’s dependence on China for things like technology, but also just to evade sanctions.

RFE/RL: It does seem that Beijing and Moscow are becoming closer politically and economically, and the same seems to be true with the types of propaganda and disinformation we see being spread by both country’s officials and state-run media. I think, in particular, how Chinese officials and media have taken up the conspiracy theory that the U.S. is developing bioweapons in labs in Ukraine, which had been a thread within Russian propaganda even before the war, but has begun to be pushed again in recent weeks. What do you make of this? Is this a sign of growing coordination or something else?

Brandt: Watching China’s information strategy here [with spreading disinformation and propaganda] has been fascinating because they’re really walking a tightrope. On one hand, they’ve been unwilling to condemn Russia’s actions and quite willing to cast blame for the conflict at the foot of the United States and NATO, while still declining to condone Russia’s activities.

A fascinating space is this bioweapons conspiracy, where China [is] now outpacing Russia [in spreading] those themes. But I think it’s important to know that [Beijing] is doing this for its own reasons. China has an interest in increasing skepticism about the United States’ biological research facilities. This is really about COVID; it’s about China pushing back on the narrative that it might bear responsibility for COVID’s origins and has a desire to push conspiracy theories of its own around the origins of COVID.

Broadly, I think Russia and China have very different long-term strategies here. Russia’s interests are served by chaos, and its interests are served by destructive and destabilizing activities in Europe and by churning up divisive political sentiment within the United States.

China doesn’t really seek a world of disorder. China seeks a world that’s sort of reordered in its own favor and this is just a way station to that end. China’s interest in Russia’s biological weapons conspiracies isn’t really about deflecting blame from Russia [for its invasion of Ukraine], and it isn’t really about the divisive domestic political turn in the United States that those narratives are [feeding]. It’s really about its own interest in deflecting blame for COVID.

Reid Standish 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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