Will Russia implement its own 'Great Firewall'?

Apr 29, 2016, 3:39 PM EDT
Guards at the Kremlin. (Source: www.bbmexplorer.com via Flickr)
Guards at the Kremlin. (Source: www.bbmexplorer.com via Flickr)

While Russia has occasionally mirrored Chinese internet censorship practices, notably the random shutting down of popular websites and criminal charges brought against bloggers, the Kremlin has never revealed its admiration for China’s web policies as blatantly as it has this week. Russian leaders joined Lu Wei, China’s head of cybersecurity and internet policy (also dubbed the country’s online czar or cyberczar), and Fang Binxing, attributed with creating China’s Great Firewall, at the Russia-China ICT Development & Security Forum at the 7th International Safe Internet Forum.

Recently, heavyweight politicians in Russia have been voicing increased urgency for enacting strict internet censorship policies, namely General Aleksandr Bastrykin and Konstantin Malofeev. Bastrykin heads the Investigative Committee of Russia, and in a recent interview in Kommersant Vlast magazine he praised Chinese laws forbidding national media to cooperate with foreigners without special permits, and bans on foreign-owned electronic media. He spoke of needing a defense against the "information war," much of which he attributes to U.S.-based technology firms. Malofeev heads up an internet censorship lobbying group called the Safe Internet League, and has been loud in his push to mold Russian internet in such a way as to exclude U.S. control. The common theme among these proponents for more web censorship is the elimination of Russian reliance on American technology services.

But as often as Moscow has looked to Beijing for examples of web censorship tactics, the meeting this week underscores a push towards mirroring China’s technology more directly. Fang Binxing’s attendance in particular indicates that Moscow may be seriously considering implementing tech to "safeguard" Russian internet from the U.S. or other states. And the Financial Times quotes Malofeev in his clear disdain for the American approach to internet governance:

"Russians never thought that because we were the first in space or discovered the Antarctic that we needed to fly there under Soviet law because we claimed it. But Americans have this cowboy attitude — 'now we are going to regulate it from America for the rest of our lives because we want to.'"

It remains to be seen how Russian President Vladimir Putin will address growing domestic concerns over internet censorship and the "free and open internet". He hasn't historically been as vocal about curbing foreign-based technological influence, but he has implemented strict media control and punishing web policies such as blockages or blackouts. While it’s impossible to say how far the Kremlin will take its lesson from Chinese web police — i.e. blocking Google, Facebook, or other American services — suffice it to say the Kremlin is upping its censorship ante, with a little help from the experts.