The Russian revolution: Regional powerhouse drives the digital age
With its long history of overwhelming cultural, political, and economic dominance in the region, Russia plays a preeminent role in ICT development throughout Eurasia. In recent years, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have worked to distance themselves from Russia, but the latter is likely to retain a commanding influence in the region for the foreseeable future.
Sheer scale accounts for some of this influence. Russia’s economy dwarfs that of its neighbors, with a GDP of 2.097tn USD — nearly 10 times larger than that of Eurasia’s second-largest economy, Kazakhstan, with $224.4bn USD. Similarly, Russia’s population of 143.5 million far outstrips that of Ukraine, the region’s second-largest country by population with 45.5 million residents. Russia holds significant political power as well as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the leading force behind the region’s political organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which includes all the area’s nations except Georgia, and soon Ukraine, which is in the process of leaving. Clearly the powerhouse of Eurasia, Russia has long set the geopolitical agenda in the region, and the Internet is no exception.
In terms of cultural consumption, Russian-language online content is widely popular in all markets, cutting across the linguistic diversity of the post-Soviet space. In particular, Russian-based social networking websites VK (formerly, VKontakte), Odnoklassniki, and MoyMir, are among the top five most visited social-media websites in all 11 countries. While some governments are working hard to develop domestic content, Russian and American social media websites still dominate, with Facebook and YouTube being the most popular US-based outlets.
Russian legal developments also serve as a blueprint for neighboring countries. In particular, Russian laws on questions of online morality lead the region. In 2010, Russia passed the so-called Blacklist Law, which was ostensibly designed to protect children from harmful information, such as materials promoting suicide, drug use, pornography, extremism. In 2013, Russian legislators made headlines around the world when they also targeted LGBT content, amending the Blacklist Law to include information deemed to be detrimental to “traditional family values.” Although the Blacklist Law has not seen widespread adoption in its current form, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan now have pending legislation that is very similar to the Russian measure.
Russian technology and legal frameworks also dominate surveillance practices in the former Soviet Union. In almost all 11 countries, law enforcement bodies have adopted the same legal interception technology Russia uses to monitor and investigate criminal activity. Called SORM, or the System for Operative and Investigative Activities,1 this system gives law enforcement agencies the ability to monitor issues in real time — without notifying the mobile or Internet providers which of their subscribers are being targeted, or when. Russia does more than just exert influence through regional alliances and share technological know-how with its former client states. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Russia has been taking advantage of its political and military alliances with its neighbors to develop a joint strategy to stifle social media-fueled unrest.
BlackLists across the former Soviet Union*
Armenia: Officials have publicly stated that they will not create website blacklists such as those used in Russia and other like-minded states.
Azerbaijan: Following Russia’s lead, authorities are considering a more comprehensive filtering regime, under the pretext of protecting children from harmful content and policing child pornography.
Belarus: Under a 2010 ruling, ISPs are required to filter Internet content according to two blacklists of URLs; one is a publicly available list of sites registered in Belarus, and the other, a global list that is only available to ISPs.
Georgia: Observers report that monitoring and surveillance are limited, and the government does not block online content.
Kazakhstan: In March 2010, officials announced that Kz-CERT, the government-run Computer Emergency Response Team, would review “destructive” websites and create blacklists. The details about how Kz-CERT operates, to whom it reports, and its website selection criteria have not been made public. According to officials, 950 websites were blocked in 2011-2012 due to content that was found to be extremist, terrorist, or incited ethnic hatred. Internet sites hosted outside Kazakhstan can be blocked by court order without the presence of the defendant. Officials frequently ignore the requirement for a court order altogether.
Kyrgyzstan: There are no specific laws controlling Internet content, however, a new draft bill, “On the Protection of Children from information harmful to their health and development,” is similar to Russian Blacklist Law. The details on Internet controls are not fully disclosed, but if the bill passes websites could be blocked without a court order.
Tajikistan: Online filtering and surveillance have become more pervasive in recent years. Since 2010, policing of online content and blocking access to controversial web-based resources have become standard procedure.
Ukraine: Approved in 2012, the Rules for Telecommunication Services Provision, require operators and providers to safeguard users’ information security. The interception of communications is prohibited as a general rule, subject to some legal exceptions. Operators and providers are not liable for content but must restrict the access to illegal content such as child pornography, when instructed to do so by court order.
Uzbekistan: There is no officially published list of blocked websites. However, blocking is common practice and typically includes all opposition websites and a number of resources dealing with pornography, child abuse, Islamic issues, extremism, and politics relating to Central Asia.
* – All information taken from The SecDev Foundation country reports, and available at Digital Report
Russian ICT companies also play a very strong role across the region. In recent years, Eurasia’s underdeveloped telecommunications market has presented lucrative investment opportunities for Russian companies, particularly in the mobile market. The country’s three major telecom operators — MTS, VimpelCom (under the brand name “Beeline”), and MegaFon — have seized the opportunity to get in early on the opportunity to develop the region’s national markets. Their importance, however, varies from country to country. For example, in Armenia Russian telecom companies own nearly two-thirds of the Internet and mobile market. In Ukraine Beeline and MTS are important, but do not dominate the market completely. In Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan Internet providers with effective monopolies are closely affiliated with national governments, but mobile markets are much more liberalized, with several major players, including Russian and Western companies. Business arrangements vary depending on the country, ranging from joint ventures to independent operations to the full acquisition of local operators. Whatever the arrangements, Russian telecom companies play a critical role in determining the regional strategy and economics of mobile operators across the region.
Russia also acts as the principal driver of telecommunications policy in Eurasia. The country is a major force in the international bodies that regulate cyberspace, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the undisputed leader of regional bodies like the Regional Commonwealth of Communications (RSS). As a result, Russian-supported bills receive wide support within the former USSR.
This influence could have far-reaching consequences as Russia continues to pursue its goal of increasing state control in international Internet governance. To this end, Russia proposed modifications to the ITU’s regulations at the World Conference on International Communications 2012 (WCIT 2012). The proposal would transfer key mechanisms of Internet governance from US-influenced non-governmental organizations, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), to international state-run organizations like the ITU. This would transfer greater technical and regulatory powers to states and shift the oversight of Internet governance and regulations away from non-state actors. Although current regulations already provide nation-states with significant jurisdiction over domestic Internet matters, the proposed framework, if implemented, could shift the balance away from the current open, networked nature of Internet governance towards nationalization and securitization, a change that could significantly restrict the freedoms offered by today’s open, globalized Internet.
Read part IV: Embracing the digital age