Putin Takes Another Step in Bid to Control Russia’s Internet

Demonstrators protest in Moscow in March 2019 against a soon-to-be-passed law that requires various internet traffic to pass through servers that can be surveilled by government officials.

AP / Alexander Zemlianichenko

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Demonstrators protest in Moscow in March 2019 against a soon-to-be-passed law that requires various internet traffic to pass through servers that can be surveilled by government officials.

One center of resistance to the Kremlin’s attempt to bring the country’s internet access under central control is being brought to heel.

As Vladimir Putin pushes ahead with a plan to create a domestic internet he can control, his government is concentrating more regulatory authority in Roskomnadzor, the internet and media regulator, to make that happen. 

A couple of weeks ago, several regulatory authorities were shifted to Roskomnadzor from the agency it is ostensibly part of: the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media, or MinComSvyaz. Russian government officials are not yet clear whether Roskomnadzor will officially replace MinComSvyaz outright in its functions in regulating the internet or just take over more authorities—that would depend on subsequent decisions. And ultimately, how much it matters depends on other efforts pushed by Vladimir Putin to promote the economy’s “digitization” through 2025 and how Roskomnadzor will fit into that.

“The Ministry of Communications used to be the only agency that opposed the most odious legislative initiatives to regulate the network. With the current leadership, the Ministry will toe the official government line,” wrote one Russian journalist.

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The new minister is Maksut Shadaev, a technocrat who was recently appointed to an intra-agency “Digital Economy” organization for public-private partnerships. His appointment was by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishutin, who is leading President Putin’s strategic drive to “digitize” the national economy.

Shadaev’s deputy is Lyudmila Bokova, a former senator who wrote legislation to protect officials from insults, crack down on stories the government deems “fake,” and enable Russia to develop an internet that can be shut off from the outside world. Russian commentators see her appointment as part of a trend towards tightening state policy in telecom, information and data transmission, as well as in the regulation of internet infrastructure.

Related to all this, leadership at Roskomnadzor itself, not just its parent ministry, has recently been shaken up. On March 23, Alexander Zharov, who has run the agency since 2012, left to become CEO of Gazprom-Media, the Russian media giant. On March 30, Minister Mishutin appointed a man by the name of Andrei Lipov to be his replacement. Lipov came from the Kremlin, where he worked in and subsequently managed a department responsible for information and communications technology policy. Like Mishustin, Lipov is a technocrat with decades of experience in the Russian tech sector.

To fill Lipov’s now-vacant role at the Kremlin, Mishustin then appointed Tatiana Matveeva, who previously headed information technology at Russia’s Federal Tax Service. The two were previously colleagues at several government and private-sector ventures over the past decade. With an ally now at the Kremlin as well, Mishustin can further ensure that government work on regulating and safeguarding the national internet can be unchallenged.

The authorities moved to Roskomnadzor will allow it to issue orders to the internet companies that manage Russia’s internet exchange points to further consolidate their control of data flows, with the goal that the Kremlin will ultimately be able to order internet isolation if desired. Likewise, reorganizing the individuals in charge of internet regulation will allow Roskomnadzor greater leeway to work on making the domestic internet a reality. 

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