A new report has revealed the escalating internet censorship situation in Russia, with a record number of cases being reported in the past year.
The report has been published by Agora, a human rights campaign group based in the country, which has produced a series of reputable reports on the Putin regimes online crackdown. We have previously highlighted another report they published on the penalties being dished out to people posting critical content about the Russian regime on the Runet (the Russian language internet).
Hundreds of Runet sites blocked every day
Their latest report [in Russian] reveals that in the past twelve months, Russia has seen more than 115,000 recorded online censorship cases. According to Agora, more than 110,000 of these cases related to websites being blocked.
They have estimated that the Russian regime has, on average, blocked a staggering 244 websites a day in 2017 alone.
The report, which is entitled “Internet Freedom 2017: Creeping Criminalization” is the latest in a decade of research into online restrictions being put in place by the Putin regime. And as well as an increase in internet censorship, they have also found more evidence of physical violence against people because of their online activity.
Physical and criminal retaliation on the rise too
This trend of increased physical violence has continued for the past two years, but the spike in 2017 is particularly worrying.
Agora found that 67 people were subjected to threats or assaults as a result of their online activities in 2017. This is an increase from 49 the previous year.
State intimidation has also continued. The number of actual or threatened criminal prosecutions against people for their online activity has increased significantly; from 298 cases in 2016 to 411 last year.
The number of people who have been locked up as a result of things they have done online also grew from 32 in 2016 to 43 last year. And there were 5 cases of people being confined to psychiatric hospitals for compulsory medical treatment for the same reasons.
Agora has done a very thorough job and even broke their data down by region. And it will come as no surprise to learn that while the online freedom situation did improve in a handful of regions across this vast country, in most areas, the opposite was true.
A decade of internet controls in Russia
As this latest report marked ten years since Agora had started compiling such information, it was a timely moment to tot up some figures for the decade. And these make for even more troubling reading.
In the past ten year’s Agora have recorded 214 cases of violence or threats against internet users. This has included 5 murders and several more attempts at murder. The main targets of these assaults have been bloggers, journalists, and online activists.
There have also been 1,449 criminal prosecutions brought in relation to online activity in the past ten years. 98 of those have resulted in individuals being sent to jail.
And one of the most underplayed, but most telling of figures is the growth of state regulatory proposals aimed at the Runet. These have grown particularly rapidly over the past five years. There were just 5 in 2014, but by 2017 there were a remarkable 114 separate proposals.
Why the surge in online restrictions?
There are several possible reasons why the online freedom situation in Russia continues to deteriorate despite Vladimir Putin seemingly growing stronger and more popular.
One reason is the growth in internet users in Russia, an indeed around the world, which makes asserting online control an increasingly pressing issue for authoritarian regimes like that of Putin in Russia.
Another could be Russia’s growing relationship with neighbouring China, which operates a vast online surveillance and censorship programme to great effect. It is a crucial part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to cling onto power and a potential model for Putin to recreate. The two states have certainly shared information on online information control in the recent past.
Whatever the true reason, for Russian people it means less online freedom and accessing information critical of the Putin regime is becoming harder and harder.
Many Russian’s have turned to a VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN to access censored content online. The regime is aware of this loophole and has tried to ban VPN use in Russia. However, some VPNs remain accessible for the time being and still offer a solution.
But the worry for Russian people is that the trends uncovered by Agora in their excellent reports are likely to continue and online censorship is likely to continue to get worse in Russia before it gets better.