Study: Russia’s Internet Censorship Is Model for Global Crackdown

Censorship of the internet in totalitarian countries, where the government operates a centralized network such as in China and Iran, has always been a straightforward proposition. But as a new study by Censored Planet points out, “it was long thought that large-scale censorship on decentralized networks like Russia, United States, India and the United Kingdom was prohibitively difficult.”

But the extensive study of Russian internet censorship shows “that is not the case.”

In fact, even though Russia’s internet is distributed among more than 1,000 privately owned service providers, the Kremlin has successfully “managed to impose tight censorship over its decentralized infrastructure,” according a summary of the study by the University of Michigan, where the research was conducted.

The study was released on Wednesday, less than a week after a sweeping new censorship law, proposed by the Russian parliament earlier this year, took effect on November 1.

The so-called “sovereign internet” law allows the Russian government to cut Russia’s internet infrastructure off from the rest of the world, if it chooses, as well as to block any content the Kremlin deems “a threat.”

The University of Michigan researchers say that their findings, based on seven years of data, show that Russian-style censorship, in which individual ISPs are responsible for censoring their networks based on an extensive “block list” of sites banned by the government, could easily spread to western countries.

The United States is especially vulnerable to a Russian-style decentralized censorship system—thanks to last year’s repeal of net neutrality rules by the Federal Communications Commission.

“The erosion of net neutrality has given internet service providers the ability to monitor and shape internet traffic,” the researchers said. “That ability would be a key first step in deploying the kind of censorship now used in Russia.”

The massive, Russian “block list” contains 170,000 domains, 1,681,000 IP addresses, and 39 subnets, according to the study. Of the sites on the list, 63 percent are Russian-language sites, and 23 percent are in English.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the blocked sites are either porn or gambling. But the block list also includes news and political sites, as Russia moves to tighten the control of information online.

The Russian censorship system uses a technology called “deep packet inspection” or DPI. As reported earlier this year, DPI technology “allows the big telecom companies using it to pull out seemingly unlimited detail about the online habits of internet users.”

DPIs are currently banned in Europe, but negotiations for a new cyber policy in the European Union appear to be headed toward changing that law, despite the objections of privacy advocates that DPI can be used to mine previously unheard of volumes of data on user’s online habits.

But as the study of Russian online censorship shows, DPIs are also tools of information control, allowing ISPs to more readily identifty and block banned data.

“As more countries like UK and India require ISPs to deploy DPI for purposes of copyright enforcement or filtering pornography, we risk a slippery slope where Russian-style censorship could easily be deployed,” wrote one of the study’s authors, Roya Ensafi, on her Twitter account.  

“Russia’s censorship architecture is a blueprint, and perhaps a forewarning of how national censorship policies could be implemented in many other countries that have similarly diverse ISP ecosystems to Russia’s,” the researcher said.

Photo by Russia Presidential Press and Information Office / Wikimedia Commons


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