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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: August 26, 2015

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
State Duma Deputy Proposes Punishment of Officials Who Use Google, WhatsApp and Other Foreign Services

State Duma members have concluded that there is no need to block the use of the mobile communications app WhatsApp , but agreed to the need to punish officials for using foreign services, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing TASS.

Ilya Kostunov, a member of the State Duma Committee for Security and Anti-Corruption from United Russia, proposed sanctioning government officials for violation of restrictions on the use of Google, WhatsApp and other such foreign services:

"All the necessary prohibitions and a special regime for use of such programs and services can be defined at the level of documents issued by the executive branch -- internal instructions."

By leaving it to the discretion of bureaucrats how to enforce the law, the Russian government can also enable some officials to be allowed access to the foreign services for research and some not. They can also maintain confusion and uncertainty about what is allowed, which can be useful in keeping files of compromising material on some officials when they are needed to put pressure on them.

Kostunov thought it was fine to leave the details to bureaucrats but wanted to make sure that the punishment for violating the rules was harsh -- from fines to dismissal from employment.

He elaborated that in the last three years, the "power ministries" -- the Federal Protection Service which guards the president and the Kremlin; the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry -- had substantially tightened up regulations regarding the use of electronic gadgets during special operations. This was done to prevent leak of data to the Internet.

Kostunov claimed that in regional administrations, local officials were using ordinary mail boxes on the Internet as well as services indicated by national security chief Nikolai Patrushev.

On August 26, Patrushev had criticized officials for using the foreign services Google, Yahoo and Whatsapp for conducting state business, saying they were placing state security in serious jeopardy. He urged the government to take measures to solve this vulnerability to security, adding that careless use by officials of the foreign Internet services was one of the chief reasons for insufficient protection of government and municipal information systems.

Recently the Russian Defense Ministry as well as the Kremlin were targeted by the hackers' group Shaltai Boltai, which exposed their email communications.

On July 1, 2015, Russia passed a law banning the use of foreign servers for hosting the sites of government and municipal bodies, and requiring that all such web sites be hosted in Russia. Fines for violating the law were calibrated up to 50,000 rubles or about $723.

This followed on from a law passed last year due to go into effect September 1 requiring all foreign Internet service providers with Russian users to maintain their data on Russian soil.

That proved a challenge Google, Facebook, Twitter and other services with numerous Russian users because these companies were reluctant to place make their servers accessible to the FSB under Russian law; Russian sites like VKontakte routinely carry out requests by the FSB to monitor or delete accounts found politically objectionable. This intrusiveness was among the reasons Pavel Durov, the entrepreneur who founded Vkontakte, sold his share in the business and left Russia -- he refused to turn over his customers' data, particularly related to the war in Ukraine, to the FSB.

It is not clear to what extent these American companies will comply with Russian law but there have been reports of Google already placing servers in Russia and Facebook willing to comply with Russian requirements for the sake of keeping their millions of customers in Russia and nearby Russian-speaking countries. Twitter has been more defiant and Russian officials have complained at Twitter's failure to comply with their request to remove accounts or content they find objectionable.

Yesterday, Russian media reported that the government briefly blocked Wikipedia's page on the page about charas, an Indian form of hashish, The Guardian reported.

But due to the way in which some providers carried out the instructions, some Russian users found the entire Wikipedia site blocked due to secure https protocols.

The move sparked worldwide coverage and condemnation by both Russian and international Internet uses who saw the Russian government's action as a harbinger of an impending greater crackdown on Internet freedom.

Many Russians are adept at using circumvention software and Wikipedia posted a notice in Russian about how to get around the censor's block.

Roskomnadzor, the state censor said in a statement last night that the ban was rescinded because the page was redacted, even though Wikipedia said the page was unchanged. While Roskomnadzor has made assurances that they will not check compliance of sites like Facebook until next year, Russian watchers of Internet policy are apprehensive, as the Guardian reported:

“This is an important case because it’s part of the general offensive against https. Roskomnadzor and the FSB [security services] don’t know what to do with it,” said Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and author of Red Web, a book about the Russian internet. Soldatov said SORM, the system Russia uses for internet surveillance, does not work with the more secure https protocol, also used by sites such as Facebook and Gmail."

Soldatov speculated that the move against Wikipedia could be part of a test of another strategy: by threatening the site with bans over single pages, the site could be forced off https to ensure that the whole site is not affected when only one page is banned:

"There are two options for https: the first is to have access to the data before encryption, which explains the demand to store servers in Russia. The second is to try to force services to give up on https, which is what is happening with Wikipedia.”

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick