(Moscow) – Russian authorities have redoubled their efforts in 2021 to crack down on internet freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has blocked popular censorship circumvention tools, experimented with new censorship technologies, extended oppressive internet legislation, and pressured tech companies to comply with increasingly stifling regulations.

“The Russian government is using its growing technological capacity to engage in non-transparent, illegal and extrajudicial restrictions on digital rights in Russia,” said Anastasiia Kruope, deputy researcher for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “The dramatic crackdown on Internet freedoms over the past year is the culmination of many years of efforts by authorities to restrict the rights and freedoms of Russians online.

Since the adoption of the “sovereign internet” law in 2019 and the plethora of regulations that surround it, the government has still increased control on the Internet infrastructure in Russia. No more bills are under construction.

In December, Russian authorities blocked The Onion Router (Tor), an encrypted browser commonly used to bypass censorship or local internet manipulation or to browse the internet anonymously. The action, affecting more than Tor 300,000 daily users in Russia, has raised serious concerns within the Russian online community about the intensification of internet censorship.

Commenting on Tor blocking, the Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor spoke of a 2017 court decision who had restricted access to Tor services based on a prosecutor’s claim that this allowed access to extremist material. Tor noted that he had not received the order from Roskomnadzor to remove the “restricted content” until December 2021, and that the order did not specify what content the authorities wanted to remove.

Tor interpreter authorities’ decision to block the site as a “censorship body” and said Russian users, 15% of all Tor users, should use its “bridges” – the private relays that allow users to hide the use of Tor from outside observers. Tor has since reported that several Russian Internet service providers had blocked some of the bridges.

Since June, Roskomnadzor has blocked at least eight virtual private network (VPN) services for allegedly violating a Prohibiting Proxy Services Act, 2017, such as VPNs and Internet anonymizers, to facilitate access to prohibited websites in Russia. The law provides for an “access restriction” for offenders. In December, authorities opened investigations into the work of six other VPN services.

Internet censorship experts report that Russia’s efforts to block Tor and, at least to some extent, VPNs, is facilitated by its Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which allows authorities to directly filter, redirect and block Internet traffic. the 2019 Sovereign Internet Law requires all Internet service providers to install DPI technology in their networks.

Russian government has not been transparent about how it enforces sovereign internet law and testing DPI technology.

Public messages from Internet service providers indicating whether use of this technology interferes with users’ ability to access blocked content or use the Internet anonymously was mixed, while the authorities claimed that the technology caused no disruption. The same time, media and IT experts report accidental blocking and internet disruption associated with the use of DPI.

In March, the authorities used DPI technology to “tune” or slow down, access to Twitter for its inability to remove the content the government ruled it illegal and threatened to block Twitter altogether. After Roskomnadzor’s announcement, access to some states and private websites and online systems was temporarily disrupted, suggesting that authorities are unable to use DPI technology to strangle specific sites without collateral damage.

The move came weeks after Twitter and other foreign and Russian social media companies were fined heavily for failing to remove posts calling for participation in peaceful mass protests in support of the eminent opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

In August, Roskomsvoboda, a leading Russian digital rights group, announced filed a complaint in a Moscow court on behalf of 23 users, claiming that limiting Twitter was illegal because no such measure was directly contemplated by law, and violated the applicants’ right to communicate through the platform. The tribunal fired the lawsuit, claiming that user rights were unaffected.

Authorities have repeatedly threatened to block access to all or part of the websites of foreign and Russian tech giants for alleged non-compliance with the country’s internet laws.

In September, digital rights groups reported temporary blocking of access to the Google Docs service by some of the greats in the country Internet service providers. Navalny’s team used this service for their “Smart Voting” project ahead of the parliamentary elections, posting the list of candidates they believed had the best chance of beating the ruling party candidates. the digital rights groups said the temporary blocking illustrates the extrajudicial and non-transparent nature of DPI technology. Authorities refuse blocking Google Docs.

Over the past year, authorities have fined tech companies, including major social media platforms, for allegedly breaking Russian internet law. In 2021, authorities imposed fines on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Google, TikTok and other internet companies. total of at least 187 million rubles (US $ 2.5 million) for failed removal of allegedly illegal content. The government also increases fines for violation of an obligation to store personal data of Russian users in the country.

In June, Parliament adopted a law on foreign technology companies provide services to Russian users. The law requires websites with more than 500,000 daily users in Russia to open offices in the country by January 2022. Penalties for non-compliance include prohibiting the company from advertising or from using advertisements on their websites, restricting payments to businesses and blocking partial or total access to their websites.

According to Roskomnadzor, this law is applicable to 13 companies, which it listed in November, including Google; Apple; Meta Platforms, which includes Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other companies; Twitter; TIC Tac; and Telegram.

In September, Apple and Google removed Navalny’s voting app from their app stores after requests from Russian law enforcement. An aide from Navalny tweeted a screenshot an email from Apple stating that Roskomnadzor ordered the app to be removed because it included content deemed illegal in Russia and inconsistent with App Store policies.

Russian state news agency TASS had previously reported that Roskomnadzor ordered Google and Apple to remove the app due to a requirement by the Russian Attorney General’s office to restrict access to information related to Navalny’s organization, which has been described as “extremist” and is prohibited in Russia.

the New York Times reported that Google removed the app after Russian authorities appointed specific staff in the country who would face prosecution if they did not. Neither company has publicly explained its response to Russian government requests or responded to Human Rights Watch’s requests for comment.

While companies are understandably concerned about their staff in the country, they also have a responsibility to respect rights. The events in Russia raise concerns about possible corporate-assisted censorship in other countries that have passed laws requiring companies to appoint representatives in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

The Russian government has also attempted to use its domestic law to dictate content moderation practices to Internet companies, even in connection with their business operations in other countries.

In December, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube for removing the German-language channel of the pro-government media company Russia Today. The agency cited a Russian law passed in December 2020 that purported to protect Russians’ right of access to information. The law allows authorities to block websites on censored Russian state media content. In September, YouTube had blocked Russia Today channel in Germany for violating its policy by broadcasting false information about Covid-19. The dissemination of false information in circumstances threatening the life and safety of persons is a criminal Offence in Russia.

Other new laws of concern include legislation which requires specific websites appointed by the authorities to control the number of users and their preferences, and a law allowing the extrajudicial blocking of alleged defamatory information.

International law allow for certain restrictions on freedom of expression online for the protection of national security or public order, health or morals. These restrictions, however, should comply with the criteria of necessity, proportionality and legality. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has highlighted that international law requires that these limits be “prescribed by law, which are clear and accessible to all”, and that they be predictable and transparent.

Russian authorities should stop imposing excessively excessive measures, such as restriction and blocking, of freedom of expression and access to information in a way disproportionate to the conduct they are penalizing , Human Rights Watch said.

“Russian authorities claim they are working to protect the interests of Russian internet users,” Kruope said. “Instead, relying on their growing arsenal of internet censorship, they are rapidly turning the internet in Russia into a zone of repression. The government should respect digital rights instead of undermining them. “