Under the Kremlin's Internet surveillance program known as “SORM-2,” Russian Internet service providers are obligated to purchase and install special equipment that allows the Federal Security Service (FSB) to track specific words (like “bomb” or “government”) in online writing and conversation. If officials request additional information about a particular user, the ISP must comply.
Until recently, SORM-2 applied only to ISPs. Last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree that will expand SORM-2's reach to online social networks and all websites that allow people to message one another. Sites like Facebook and Google are now obligated to install surveillance gadgetry, sometimes referred to as “backdoors,” that will allow the FSB to monitor Internet users independently. It's impossible to say exactly how this will work, as Medvedev's order prohibits websites from disclosing the technical details of the government's surveillance operations.
Decree N743 is intended to amend the controversial “Law on Bloggers,” which created a government registry for bloggers who have more than 3,000 daily readers. Registered bloggers are subject to media-focused regulations that can make them more vulnerable to fines and lawsuits than their less popular counterparts. Registered bloggers also are banned from using obscene language and required to fact-check any information they publish. Critics say the law places serious curbs on Internet freedom.
Medvedev's decision to extend Internet surveillance mechanisms to social networks surprised Russia's Internet companies. A PR officer from Yandex, the country's largest search engine, said the company received no advanced notice of the change.
“Once again, it's unclear what we're supposed to do, what the actual requirements are, and how much all this will cost,” said Anton Malginov, legal head of the Mail.ru, which owns Odnoklassniki.ru, one of Russia's most popular social networks. Businesses are still awaiting clarification from Russia's Communications Ministry.
If the government chooses to enforce every letter of Medvedev's decree, Russia's social networks will join ISPs in buying and installing equipment that allows the FSB to spy on users. Thus SORM-2 would have its “2.0.”
At first glance, “SORM 2.0″ seems redundant, as social network traffic already passes through the wiretaps now installed at the ISP level. In order to obtain detailed information about individual users, however, the FSB must file formal requests, which can be a burdensome process. Installing surveillance instruments at the source of the data, however, will grant authorities the power to conduct targeted realtime surveillance. The procedure will be faster and simpler than dealing with ISPs.
Before August 1, websites were under no obligation to record and store users’ data. The Law on Bloggers changed that. Since August 1, even before Medvedev interpreted the blogger law to be an extension of SORM-2, social networks have been required to keep certain information on file for six months. The costs of this storage will undoubtedly fall on businesses and, in turn, consumers. Websites that cannot attract additional advertising revenue might erect paywalls or even be forced to close down. These massive data stores can also be vulnerable to malicious hacking by third party actors.
And the degree to which extending SORM-2 controls to social networks will help authorities catch criminals remains largely unknown.
How should bloggers respond to these developments? Most Russian Internet users don't have to worry about anything. As Anton Nossik, one of the “founding fathers” of the RuNet, put it almost a year ago, the government's actions against bloggers are politically driven. For the most part, Russia's new laws don't threaten Internet users who steer clear of politics. Those who do speak out about sociopolitical issues, however, might attract the FSB's sudden attention, though there are only enough federal police to keep a close eye on the country's leading dissidents.
Of course, that may be little solace in a world where Big Brother never sleeps.