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Anton Nossik on the Coming End of Facebook, Twitter, and Google in Russia

A Russian apocalypse might be headed for social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

A Russian apocalypse might be headed for social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Severing Russia’s connection to American Internet giants looks increasingly likely. Earlier today, September 26, Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) revealed it has formally demanded that Facebook, Twitter, and Google obey a new law requiring “organizers of information distribution” to store on Russian soil six-month meta data archives, making them accessible to Russian police. Also, the Duma is poised to pass the final reading of amendments to another law that will require websites and certain apps to store all user data on servers located inside Russia by January 1, 2015, rather than September 2016, as the law originally planned.

For months already, speculation that the Kremlin will cut off access to American online social media has been a regular feature of commentary about the RuNet. Now, one of the Russian Internet’s most respected voices says he’s confident that websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google will soon be things of the past in Russian cyberspace. Writing on LiveJournal today, media expert and founding member of the Russian blogosphere Anton Nossik explained why he thinks the end is nigh in Russia for websites used by billions around the globe.

With the author’s permission, RuNet Echo is making Nossik’s blog post available to English speakers.

“Facebook, Twitter, and Google: the Mechanics of Disconnection,”
by Anton Nossik

Roskomnadzor has started preparing to block in Russia the servers of Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

The original plan was to block these services in the second half of 2016, but Duma deputies suddenly changed their minds this week, approving revisions to new legislation that move the disconnection date to January 1, 2015. But Roskomnadzor is hurrying to create the preconditions for this shut-off even sooner.

The technology for disconnecting is two-stage. First, the government will present foreign Internet companies with clearly impractical demands to relocate all user data to locations under the control of Russia’s FSB [the Federal Security Service]. Then, for failing to comply with these demands, state officials will disconnect them. More accurately, they’ll disconnect us from them.

After being registered by Roskomnadzor as an organizer of information distribution, a website must maintain “on the territory of the Russian Federation information [from the past six months] about the reception, transmission, delivery, and (or) processing of communication by voice, writing, images, sounds, or other electronic means between users of the Internet.” Failure to fulfill these demands carries a penalty of up to 500,000 rubles, Roskomnadzor explains.

Maybe you're thinking the journalists at Izvestia left out an important nuance: just exactly whose data needs to be stored on Russian soil. Does this concern only Russian citizens, Russian-speaking Internet users worldwide, or citizens of any country, who happen to be on Russian territory, when accessing the Web?

In fact, Izvestia’s journalists aren't guilty of anything here. Of course, they could have asked the Roskomnadzor official this interesting question, and maybe even did ask, but simply weren’t permitted to print the answer. The raw truth is that the answer isn’t actually written in the federal law passed by the government. There was no effort to limit the jurisdiction of the Duma’s laws and the legitimate sphere of interest of Russia’s FSB—not by the criterion of citizenship, not by language, not by geography. If you read Federal Law 97 as it was actually written and passed, you’ll see that it concerns the reception and transmission of anyone’s data—American and European, Japanese and Canadian, Israeli and New Zealander, without any kind of restrictions. And the law’s definition of a blog is also quite generous. Allow me to quote the law, as you probably won’t believe me:

The owner of a site and (or) particular page of a site on the Internet, on which there is publicly accessible information and which attracts more than 3,000 daily visits from users of the Internet, (henceforth referred to as a “blogger”) is obligated to observe the laws of the Russian Federation, when distributing and using this information, including the distribution of said information on the website or website’s page by other users of the Internet.

Here it’s plainly clear there aren’t restrictions of any kind. Not by citizenship, not by language, and not by geography. If you’ve got 3,000 unique visitors in a day, you’re on the list, so please fall in. Even if your language is Indonesian and your entire audience is on the island of Java. Either you recognize the jurisdiction of a flock of sheep [i.e., Russia], or we’ll block you. That's what the law says.

Naturally, nobody is planning to enforce this law as it was passed. From the beginning, the task has been something else. Still ten days before the law went into effect, Roskomnadzor’s Maxim Ksenzov explained to everyone that his agency wouldn’t enforce any provisions of this law in any way except as selective political censorship.

We do not aim nor have we ever aimed to organize a census of all popular Russian-language Internet users. This would be a pointless exercise, and the law isn’t about that. […] The blogger registry created by the law, which Roskomnadzor will launch on August 1, wasn’t created to provide statistical calculations […]. We see no specific need for a preliminary assessment of the number of Internet users who potentially fall into the law’s “blogger” category. The statistics will be gathered as the law is enforced and will be flexible.

Flexibility is perhaps the defining quality of Russian law enforcement this season. Whomever they point the finger at tomorrow will be the next one visited by this “flexibility.” But the top priority now is blocking Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s services in Russia. The Duma has set a deadline of January 1, 2015, but Roskomnadzor is hurrying to get it done even earlier.

I don’t know what brought on this rush. In any event, for now we’re only talking about the kind of disconnection technology that is easily overcome with the help of proxies and VPN.

This text is a full English translation of an article by Anton Nossik that appeared in Russian on Nossik’s LiveJournal blog on September 26, 2014.

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