After the Russian Parliament offered support for a bill calling for tighter national restrictions on the internet, thousands of protesters have mobilized throughout Russia in opposition to the government’s decision. Despite the fact that the government has stated that the bill and its accompanying policies — which would separate Russia’s internet services from those of the rest of the world — is meant to improve cyber-security, mass protests in several Russian cities, including Moscow, indicate the pertinence of ideological divides between the people and government. According to the BBC, a second vote on the bill is expected to occur later this month, after which approval from Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is still needed.
The ‘cyber-security’ bill, although officially referenced as a mode that the Russian government can use to restrict the use of foreign internet servers for national internet traffic, has called the Russian government’s policies surrounding censorship, freedom of dissent, international isolationism, truth, and authoritarianism even further into question.
One large source of controversy surrounding both the bill and the protests that it consequently sparked had been the differing reports of the protest attendance in Moscow. Although, according to the BBC, activists recorded over 15,000 participants, police reports have cut this number by at least half, perhaps ironically enacting the political battle for truth in Russia through the very bill against which the protestors demonstrated.
Digital Journal reports protestors having utilized slogans such as, “hands off the internet”, and “no to isolation”, while also stating that, in the case of Siberian activist Sergei Boiko, “… The government is battling freedom, including freedom on the internet.” Further, according to a correspondent from OVD-Info, a rights group and news organization that tracks arrests, twenty-nine people have been detained as a result of the Moscow rally, including one journalist.
Overall, it is important to shed light on how admirable the act of collective protest is under a political regime that does not generally take kindly to governmental opposition. Because internet restriction to Russian domestic servers is not only a dictation of individual rights to technological property, it is a demonstration of the restriction of access to global information. Additionally, as arrests and violence often define retributive punishments inflicted upon dissenters, the way these collective rallies, in the face of utilization of state-sanctioned violence to suppress oppositional action, did not erupt in violence is reflective of the peace promoted in supporting the right to public information.
Russia’s most recent internet bill had not been an isolated instance of attempting to institutionalize political data control, as the Russian government has attempted to limit domestic internet freedoms politically over the past few years, as well. And just this Thursday, the Russian government has passed two new bills, one of which qualifies “disrespecting” authorities as an illegal act, while the other outlaws the spread of “fake news,” according to the BBC. Moreover, the Digital Journal reports that similar collective demonstrations took place nearly a year ago, when government media watchdogs attempted to universally restrict access to Telegram, an encrypted messaging website, and eventually shut it down. It had later been divulged by Russia’s main security agency, FSB, that Telegram was a messaging service primarily used by international terrorist organizations existing within Russia.
It can be difficult to assess the actions of the Russian government against those of the activists involved in the urban mobilizations due to the stratified power structures within the political system. A strictly domestic internet system in Russia would pose ideological threats to the spread of globalized knowledge, truths, and destinations of understanding which the internet allows. Despite the inherent violence that accompanies state-mandated sources of knowledge, perhaps analyzing and consequently understanding such a pull toward digital isolationism will help to highlight the falsities embedded in the popularized notion of a homogenous world system of knowledge production and allocation that underlies the narrative of linear global progress.