PRISM just gave Russia a great excuse to step up its war on social networks

Vladimir Vladimirovich is watching.
Vladimir Vladimirovich is watching.
Image: AP Photo/Misha Japaridze
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Governments love to use external enemies as a way to further their agendas. Alarmed by reports that American spies are gathering data from popular web services, Ilya Kostunov, a lawmaker from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in the lower house of government, yesterday said he wants state officials to stop using US social networks and email services such as Facebook and Gmail for official purposes.

This seems like a sensible move. But Kostunov—who is on Facebook, Google+ and LiveJournal—goes further. He told Izvestia, a Russian daily, about a letter (link in Russian) he sent to deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin (more on him later), the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB is the successor to the KGB), and the defense and communications ministers, in which he suggests that any lapses resulting from the reckless use of foreign services should be dealt with under article 275 of the Russian criminal code: treason. The law was recently expanded to include wide-ranging new definitions of treason.

Kostunov is a colorful character in Russian politics, known, among other things, for insulting the entire Russian population. But his views parallel those of the Russian establishment.

Last week, Russia’s deputy prime minister Rogozin suggested at a lecture in Moscow that the the US State Department was actively engaged in influencing Russian public opinion through social networks. He said that people “receive special content that is undermining the authority of the state and the values of the established state,” according to Russia Today, an English-language news service.

Earlier this week, the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, told a meeting of the national counter-terrorism committee that social networks and foreigners (link in Russian) were spreading religious extremism in Russia, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.

These statements contain within them an element of truth. Russian ministers and intelligence services, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, have legitimate reasons to worry about data security and online extremism. But Russia’s complaints are undermined by its own attacks on free speech and online forums.

Last year, Russia passed a law requiring NGOs that obtain funding from outside Russia to register as “foreign agents,” a law that critics say is used to harass those organizations. Kostunov was among those pushing for the law to be expanded to the media. More recently, Russia has turned its wrath on the internet. In May, a parliamentarian held social networks responsible for helping organise protests in Moscow. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Putin in February called on the FSB to better monitor social networks, and cites lawmaker Aleksey Mitrofanov as saying “an era of absolutely free internet in Russia has ended.”

More worrying still is the persecution of Pavel Durov, who founded VKontakte, a popular—and permissive—Russian social network. Durov disappeared in April after being accused of hitting a policeman with his car. Shortly thereafter, authorities raided VKontakte’s offices in St Petersburg. The following day, two of his partners sold their  combined 48% stake in the company to a private equity group linked to the Kremlin. Some view l’affaire Durov as part of a wider crackdown on internet freedom.

Together, these events and exhortations from lawmakers point to a clear trend: Russia’s problem with social networks is actually a problem with free speech itself, even if it is couched in the international language of controlling extremism, unchecked migration and criminal activities. Foreigners are the enemy in this campaign. And the NSA leaks give Putin’s men a perfect opportunity to drive home that message.