Watchdog Says Russian Internet Crackdown “Reduced” in 2021

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Russian authorities have “redoubled their efforts” over the past year to crack down on online freedoms, citing blocking of tools used to circumvent censorship, expanding internet laws “Oppressive” and the pressure on tech companies to comply with “increasingly stifling regulations.”

“Last year’s dramatic crackdown on internet freedoms is the culmination of many years of efforts by authorities to restrict the rights and freedoms of Russians online,” Anastasiia Kruope, deputy researcher for Europe and the ‘Central Asia to HRW, said in a press release December 24th.

The government “is using its growing technological capacity to engage in non-transparent, illegal and extrajudicial restrictions on digital rights in Russia,” she said.

The New York-based human rights watchdog cited the blocking earlier this month of Tor, an encrypted browser commonly used to bypass local internet censorship or to browse the internet anonymously.

Since June, Russia has also blocked at least eight virtual private network (VPN) service providers for allegedly breaking a 2017 law that bans proxy services from facilitating access to banned websites in Russia, he said. he declares.

HRW said these efforts have been aided by Russian deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows authorities to “filter, redirect and directly block” Internet traffic.

The “Sovereign Internet” law adopted in 2019 requires all Internet service providers to install DPI technology in their networks.

In March, authorities used DPI technology to slow access to Twitter for its inability to remove content the government deemed illegal, HRW said, noting that the measure came weeks after social media companies Sentenced to heavy fines for failing to suppress messages calling for participation in peaceful mass protests in favor of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

According to HRW, authorities have repeatedly threatened to block access to websites of foreign and Russian technology companies for alleged non-compliance with the country’s internet laws.

In September, digital rights groups reported the temporary blocking of access to the Google Docs service by Russian internet service providers, which they said illustrates the extrajudicial and non-transparent nature of DPI technology.

This coincided with the publication by Navalny’s associates of a list of candidates voters are expected to vote on to topple the ruling party’s incumbents in the parliamentary elections.

Navalny’s voting app has also disappeared from Apple and Google online stores in what Navalny associates have called censorship and tech giants giving in to pressure from the Kremlin.

Over the past year, major social media platforms and other tech companies have also been fined for allegedly breaking Russian internet law.

Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Google, TikTok and other internet companies have been fined at least $ 2.5 million for failing to remove allegedly illegal content or store personal data of Russian users in the country.

According to HRW, the Russian government has also attempted to use its national legislation to “dictate content moderation practices to Internet companies, even in connection with their business operations in other countries.”

Earlier this month, Roskomnadzor threatened to block YouTube for removing the German-language channel of Russian state-owned media company RT, citing a Russian law passed a year ago that was supposedly aimed at protecting Russians’ right of access to information.

This law allows authorities to block websites on censored Russian state media content.

HRW said other recent Russian laws raise concerns, including legislation requiring websites designated by authorities to monitor the number of users and their preferences, and a law allowing the extrajudicial blocking of alleged defamatory information.

“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,” she added.


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