06.02.23 Repressions Review

Online on the Line: repression of free speech and the war have led to the construction of ‘Runet 2.0’ and the ever-increasing isolation of the original

According to a Network Freedom Project analysis, 2022 was unprecedented in terms of blocking, data leaks, and restrictions on free speech in the Russian sector of the World Wide Web. There are three crucial factors determining the trajectory of the overall degradation of Runet: Russian government censorship and repression; aggressive propaganda by Kremlin-backed channels and the West’s attempt to combat this, which has resulted in these resources being blocked outside of Russia; and the ongoing cyber war with Ukraine, which has resulted in numerous hacks and leaks of Russian data. As it has become increasingly impossible to operate independent media outlets within Russia, many have been forced to relocate their operations abroad, resulting in a ‘Runet 2.0’, a russophone web operating outside the reach of Russia's repressive law enforcement agencies. Against this backdrop, the Russian e-commerce market has grown 1.4 times in the past year, while there has been a threefold decline in the percentage of cross-border transactions, which now account for only 3% of the total volume of online sales.

Alongside the Russian invasion of Ukraine, freedom of expression within Russia worsened dramatically in 2022. Russia finished the year ranked 155th on Reporters Without Borders International's Press Freedom Index, trailing Zimbabwe (137th) and Somalia (140th). According to Freedom House's Freedom of the Net report, it was ranked 65 out of 70 countries. Russia has dropped seven points on the index, joining Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Myanmar, and China as one of the least free national domains on the Internet. 

According to Network Freedom Project monitoring, 637,000 incidents of interference with Internet freedom were recorded in Russia in 2022. This represents a 43% increase on  the previous year’s figure. The vast majority of these government interventions (almost 610,000 cases) were bans on the distribution of information and website blockings, as well as demands for personal data (22,000 cases). A third of the site blockings (190,000) were responses to calls for ‘unauthorised’ protests or to the dissemination of publicly significant information deemed ‘untrustworthy’ by the prosecutor's office. Many independent media outlets (Meduza, Republic, Wonderzine, etc.) began to receive notifications from Roskomnadzor (the federal agency responsible for monitoring, controlling, and censoring Russian mass media) demanding that they remove materials covering the hostilities in the early days of the war in Ukraine. By March, access to these websites had been completely blocked, and links to their sites had vanished from Russian search engines (Yandex and Mail.ru). In addition to media outlets, entire social networks were prohibited: Roskomnadzor announced on March 4 that Facebook and Twitter were to be completely blocked in Russia. 

All of this has contributed to a surge in demand for VPN services. According to the Global VPN Adoption Index, Russia ranked first in terms of VPN downloads (34.9 million in the first half of the year alone) and third in terms of per capita VPN usage (24%). The Russian authorities have, predictably, not ignored VPN providers. The most popular services, such as vyprVPN, Betternet, Lantern, and others, were prohibited as early as 2021, with at least forty VPN services blocked by the end of 2022. 

One of the methods most commonly used to curtail online freedom is the prosecution of authors of 'untrustworthy' publications accused of radicalism or undermining the military. The creators of Network Freedom's open-source monitoring report identified 779 examples of the threat of prosecution, 39 of which were carried through to conviction.

The Russian authorities not only deliberately restrict online freedom, but they also use the Internet to spread aggressive propaganda. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Foreign Internet platforms have begun to restrict pro-Kremlin outlets. Google, for example, disabled the channels of RT and Sputnik, and deleted their apps from the Google Play store. In response, Roskomnadzor sent several hundreds of appeals to Google, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and other sites, demanding that they ‘stop violating the norms of open information dissemination’. According to the authors of the aforementioned Freedom House review, such policies and practices have resulted in greater fragmentation of the global Internet, a trend which has become increasingly significant in recent years. 

Russia experienced an unprecedented number of cyber attacks in 2022. The Network Freedom Project recorded 371 such instances, more than in the preceding eight years combined. Furthermore, although in previous years the majority of attacks were on the personal accounts of journalists and activists, the majority of the 2022 attacks were on the websites of regional publications. This rise in online attacks can largely be attributed to the cyber war that has accompanied the physical confrontation between Ukraine and Russia. DDoS assaults targeted Russia’s official media channels(RIA Novosti, TASS, Zvezda, and Vesti.ru) and government offices in 2022. 

Additionally, 2022 saw a record number of Russian data leaks. According to the most recent report from DLBI (Data Leakage & Breach Intelligence) cybersecurity specialists, the personal data of three quarters of Russia's adult population is now publicly available online. In most cases, this data includes contact information as well as account details and passwords for various services. It is also worth noting that this information is no longer merely sold on shadowy Internet forums, but is now freely available for any user to access. Analysts at InfoWatch have ascribed this increase in data leaks to the operations of Ukraine's ‘cyber army,’ who became more active following the Russian invasion.

At the onset of conflict and as a result of the increased persecution against freedom of expression, at least a thousand journalists and many thousands of IT workers fled Russia. Additionally, many publishers relocated their operations outside of Russia's borders. According to the team at Network Freedom, all of this has effectively resulted in the establishment of a ‘Runet 2.0’, outside the reach of Russian law enforcement agencies. Without using VPN services, the main ‘bridge’ between this new phenomenon and the original or ‘mainland’ Runet is still YouTube and Telegram — the only relatively free media platforms available to Russian residents without the use of circumvention tools. 

At the same time, the economy of Runet continued to grow. In 2022, the volume of Internet trade in Russia expanded 1.4 times, and is now worth 5.17 trillion rubles. However, as a result of sanctions and the disconnection of Runet from international payment systems, the number of cross-border transactions has dropped dramatically (from 479 billion to 164 billion rubles) and now accounts for just 3% of the total volume of e-commerce.