Moscow Letter: Kremlin steps up surveillance of online communications

Many Russians feel FSB is using national security as pretext to encroach on privacy

A protest rally in Moscow against a court decision to block the Telegram messenger service because it violated Russian regulations, on Monday. Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

A protest rally in Moscow against a court decision to block the Telegram messenger service because it violated Russian regulations, on Monday. Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

 

With less than a week to go until Vladimir Putin is sworn in for a fourth term as Russia’s leader, the Kremlin wants to avoid a repeat of the massive anti-government rallies that cast a shadow over the 2012 presidential inauguration.

All the same, a protest against internet censorship that took place with the blessing of Moscow city authorities on Monday, soon morphed into an anti-Putin rally with several thousand mainly young people chanting “Down with the tsar”.

The main demand of the #DigitalResistance march was the lifting of an official ban on the Telegram messaging app that has become emblematic of a broader crackdown on free speech on the Russian internet.

Russia’s Federal Security Services, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, won a case against Telegram in a Moscow court in Moscow last month after the company’s inventor, Pavel Durov, refused to hand over the encryption keys providing access to subscribers’ data.

Terrorist plots

The FSB says it needs to monitor communications on Telegram to foil terrorist plots. But many Russian netizens suspect the intelligence agency is using the national security threat as a pretext to encroach on their privacy and police the internet.

Telegram allows subscribers to chat and share pictures in groups of up to 10,000 members and it has become a popular communications tool in Russia where it has more than 20 million subscribers. Speakers at the demonstration on Monday warned that Telegram could be just encrypted messaging service targeted by the FSB and that others from Facebook to WhatsApp could soon come under fire.

In a largely successful bid to evade censorship, Telegram has switched automatically to using multiple internet protocol addresses

“Telegram is only the first step...It will get worse,” Sergei Smirnov, the editor of Mediazone, an online news service, told the demonstration on Monday. “They want to block everything. They want to block our future and the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Efforts by Roskomnadzor, the Russian state telecommunications regulator, to block Telegram since the FSB won the court case, have been fraught with difficulty and caused widespread havoc on the Russian internet.

Carpet bombing

In a largely successful bid to evade censorship, Telegram has switched automatically to using multiple internet protocol addresses as soon as the ban came into force. Roskomnadzor has pursued, temporarily knocking out thousands of Russian sites in a process that critics have compared to carpet bombing.

Monday’s rally took place at the start of the week-long May holidays in bright sunshine that encouraged a lighthearted mood. Protesters carried banners saying “Big Moron isn’t blocking you” and “Things have got so bad even introverts are here”, and threw paper darts shaped like Telegram’s aeroplane logo in the air.

New legislation adopted in the name of the fight against terrorism has allowed the authorities to step up surveillance of online communications

But there were expressions of anger from online entrepreneurs whose businesses have suffered from the Roskomnadzor bombardment. “We haven’t been able to work normally for two weeks,” said Alexander Gornik, a Russian software engineer. “Millions of people can’t watch films, can’t use services they have paid money for or just play trivial games on Play Station.”

CIA project

Russian legislators began restricting online freedom after 2012 when Putin – who has described the internet as a CIA project – embarked on his third presidential term.

New legislation adopted in the name of the fight against terrorism has allowed the authorities to step up surveillance of online communications. Agora, an international human rights organisation, noted in a report this year that the FSB has gradually replaced Roskomnadzor as the “main controller of the Russian internet both in the technological sphere and on the basis of a repressive organ”.

Russia’s small Libertarian Party organised the Monday rally with backing from Mr Durov who has been living in self-imposed exile since Russian authorities forced him to sell VKontakte, a social networking site he created as Russia’s answer to Facebook.

‘We deserve freedom’

Moscow law enforcers had given permission for up to 5,000 people to gather, but attendance was more than double that with supporters from pro-democracy, nationalist and communist groups turning out. “We are all in the same boat, said Mikhail Svetov a blogger and founding member of the Libertarian Party. “We deserve freedom. We are a European people. We deserve to enjoy the values that Europeans enjoy.”

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

Police officers warned Alexei Navalny, the popular Russian opposition leader, that he would risk arrest if he used his speech to flag the unauthorised protest against Putin’s inauguration he plans to lead this Saturday. Navalny found a way round the restrictions, telling the crowds he would never implore them to come to a rally. “But may I ask, might you possibly be considering coming?” he added to the sound of enthusiastic applause.

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