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Russia strengthens its Internet controls in a critical year for Putin| GuyWhoKnowsThings

Russia is stepping up its Internet censorship ahead of this weekend's elections, which are sure to give President Vladimir V. Putin another six years in power, further reducing one of the last remaining spaces for political activism, independent information and freedom of expression.

Russian authorities have intensified a crackdown on digital tools used to bypass internet blockages, limited access to WhatsApp and other communication apps in specific areas during the protests, and expanded a program to hack websites and online services, according to civil society groups, researchers. and companies that have been affected.

Russia, they said, is turning to techniques that go beyond its established hacking and digital surveillance practices, taking a more systemic approach to changing the way its national Internet works. In doing so, the country is using methods pioneered by China and Iran, forming an authoritarian model for regulating the Internet that contrasts with the United States' more open approach.

Russia “has reached a new level of blocking in the last six months,” said Mikhail Klimarev, a Russian telecommunications expert and executive director of the Internet Protection Society, a civil society group.

Internet censorship has increased in Russia for more than a decade, but the scale and effectiveness of the most recent blocks have surprised even technical experts. The techniques add to an infrastructure of repression built by Putin to keep protesters and opponents under control and serve the country. a diet of state propaganda.

The measures come at a critical time for Putin, who has been grappling with memorials to Aleksei A. Navalny, the Kremlin's fiercest critic, after died last month in a Russian prison, as well as the effects of an ongoing war in Ukraine. On Friday, Russians also began heading to the polls to vote in a presidential election that Putin is certain to win, and beefed up Internet controls show the government doesn't plan to take any risks.

Roskomnadzor, Russia's top internet regulator, did not respond to a request for comment.

In stepping up its crackdown on the Internet, Russia has followed the example of China, where the Internet is heavily restricted and social media is closely monitored.

In 2016, Fang Binxing, the father of China's Great Firewall, the system used to censor the internet in the country, met with his Russian counterparts. The relationship has since developed, according to leaked documents of meeting notes reviewed by The New York Times. The documents show how internet officials from the two countries met in 2017 and 2019 to share information on fighting encryption, blocking foreign sites and reducing protests.

The lessons of the debates have already been put into practice in Russia.

In January, as protests rocked the industrial province of Bashkortostan, officials successfully limited local access to messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram. Similar shutdowns have recently occurred in the regions of Dagestan and Yakutia, said Klimarev, who tracks online censorship in Russia and operates a company called VPN Generator.

After Navalny's death last month, other restrictions followed. During Navalny's funeral in Moscow, cellular networks in nearby areas were reduced to slower speeds, making it difficult to post videos and images on social media, Klimarev said.

In recent weeks, Russian tech companies and online activists have also reported new government efforts to identify coming Internet traffic patterns. virtual private networksor VPN, software designed to bypass blocks.

Roskomnadzor is identifying large and small VPNs and shutting down the connections, closing many of the last loopholes that allowed Russians to access global news sites or banned social media sites like Instagram. The approach, considered more sophisticated than previous tactics and requiring specialized technologies, imitate what China does around delicate political moments.

Some VPNs are still available in Russia, but they are becoming harder to find. A law that went into effect on March 1 banned advertising for such services.

“If we look back at the beginning of 2022, finding a VPN was not that difficult,” said Stanislav Shakirov, technical director of Roskomsvoboda, a civil society group that supports an open Internet, adding that the change indicates how quickly Russia's capabilities have changed. improved.

Russia is also changing the way it censors websites and Internet services. After relying primarily on telecom operators to block sites on a published blacklist, authorities now appear to rely more on centralized systems. technology to more discreetly block and slow traffic from Moscow, researchers said.

Officials appear to be balancing the desire for Internet control with technical limitations and fear of angering the public by restricting popular online platforms, such as YouTube and Telegram, which are used for news, entertainment and communication. The government has also faced engineering challenges, including earlier this year when many major websites were taken offline for about 90 minutes, in what experts blamed on a botched test of a new blocking system.

Authorities were most likely preparing for developments that could derail this weekend's election, experts said. Navalny's supporters have called on people to go to the polls at noon on Sunday to vote against Putin, hoping that images of long lines will show the world the extent of the discontent. The government could undermine the plan if it can prevent the images from being released.

The techniques are based on a Chinese-influenced playbook that has become more sophisticated every year. At high-level meetings between China and Russia in 2017, Russian officials sought advice on methods to block websites, restrict access to the global Internet and build a government-controlled Internet similar to the Great Firewall, according to records and notes from the meetings. which were made available online by DDoSecrets, a group that publishes leaked documents.

Discussions also focused on how to combat the rise of encrypted data flows, how to target larger mainstream messaging apps, and what to do about services like VPNs that can bypass blocks. In the exchanges, China emphasized its use of real-name registration (a system that requires the use of a government ID card to register for cellular services and social networks) as a way to keep people in check.

China and Russia must “establish the necessary connections to jointly counter current threats in the cyber environment,” Alexander Zharov, head of Roskomnadzor, told visiting Chinese officials in 2017, according to a leaked copy of the speech.

In recent months, Russia's VPN blocking has gone further than ever.

“The level of blocking we are seeing in Russia far exceeds what we are seeing in China,” said Yegor Sak, founder of Windscribe, a Canadian provider of a VPN, used in Russia to bypass Internet blocks.

With WhatsApp and Telegram, Russia has taken a different approach than China. After largely leaving the services alone for years, authorities have recently moved to cut off access to the apps at key moments of political instability. In Bashkortostan, an industrial and mining hub with a large indigenous population, authorities temporarily cut off access to Telegram and WhatsApp in January in response to protests that began after the arrest of a local environmental activist.

Meta, which owns WhatsApp, declined to comment. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

The outages became such a problem that people left messages on the social media pages of local politicians to turn services back on because they needed them for daily life, according to posts on VK, Russia's main social media site. .

“I can't get to school and I can't talk to the doctor or my family,” said one user. “Give us back WhatsApp and Telegram,” wrote another.

The blocks were “very significant” because messaging apps, used by millions of people, were considered much harder to disrupt, according to Ksenia Ermoshina, an expert on Russian censorship and surveillance technology. The telecom companies were most likely cooperating on government orders, she said.

The experiment suggests growing capabilities that can be used in future moments of crisis, potentially limiting the emergence of political movements.

“People protest when they see other people protesting,” Ermoshina said. But with the ability to isolate entire regions, the Russian government can “better control regionalist and separatist movements” and prevent demonstrations or other types of anger from spreading.

Little by little, the openings for unregulated Internet traffic are being plugged. At telecommunications points where transnational Internet cables enter Russia, the government is requiring companies to install new surveillance equipment, analysts say.

“The Soviet Union is coming back,” said Mazay Banzaev, operator of a Russian VPN called Amnezia. “With this, total censorship returns.”

Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed with reports.

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