MOSCOW — On March 26, a village school in a distant Russian region in Eastern Siberia, only few kilometers from the Mongolian border, was raided by the authorities. A team of FSB agents with the support of a local prosecutor's office rushed into the school in Kochetovo village in the Tuva republic. Were these agents of the state hot on the trail of terrorists, Mafiosi, or drug smugglers? No, they were there to check on a software update, specifically whether the school's computers were outfitted with filtering software to prevent access to banned websites.
They shortly found out that the software was installed, but did indeed have some gaps: one of the agents typed in "How to make a bomb" on Yandex, Russia's most popular search engine, and got back 13 million links. Kavkaz Center, the Chechen rebels' propaganda website, also turned out to be accessible. The inspection team also reported that sites with instructions for making a smoking blend were accessible. As a result, a lawsuit was filed by the local prosecutor and the school's director Andrei Oyun was fined. (Russian legislation makes responsible the organizations that provide access, not Internet service providers.) But forget who takes the blame -- the real concern is that Moscow, even in the far outer reaches of the country, is tightening the screws on the web.
The principle of Internet censorship is not a new one to Russian authorities. For at least five years, regional prosecutors have implemented court decisions requiring Internet providers to block access to banned sites accused of extremism. But this has not been done systematically: sites blocked in one region remained accessible in others.
The Single Register, officially introduced on Nov. 1, 2012, aimed to solve this problem. Three government agencies -- the Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications), the Federal Antidrug Agency, and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Public Welfare -- submit data for the government's black list of sites. Service providers are then required to block access to sites within 24 hours of their blacklisting on the Single Register.
Since November 1, hundreds of websites have been banned from the Russian Internet. The list includes websites ranging from text taken from William Powell 's The Anarchist Cookbook to the lighthearted Australian viral YouTube hit "Dumb Ways to Die." The law has had offline consequences as well. Institutions providing public access to the Internet -- schools, libraries, Internet cafés, and even post offices -- have been targeted for law enforcement inspections to check whether their computers have special software to prevent access to banned websites.
The introduction of national Internet filtering was one of the measures the Kremlin adopted in response to the Arab Spring as well as the street protests that erupted following last year's controversial Russian presidential election. To the Kremlin and the security services, these events served as proof that social networks were another tool created by the United States to topple regimes in the countries where the opposition is too weak to mobilize protests. "New technologies are used by Western special services to create and maintain a level of continual tension in society with serious intentions extending even to regime change.... Our elections, especially the presidential election and the situation in the preceding period, revealed the potential of the blogosphere," said the FSB First Deputy Director Sergei Smirnov on March 27, 2012, at a meeting of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
This assumption has come to define the Kremlin's approach to the Internet both in Russia and abroad. At home, the Kremlin's introduction of the national black list was accompanied by the deployment of new surveillance technologies to monitor social networks and the Internet as a whole. In August 2012, at a meeting organized by the Ministry of Communications, a working group of representatives of the country's biggest telecom companies concluded that the only way to implement the law which established the Single Register was through deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows Internet service providers to peer into people's Internet traffic and read, copy, or even modify e-mails and webpages. DPI also helps identify users -- what is downloaded by whom, and who looked for what on the Internet. By late fall 2012, all the biggest telecoms in Russia had DPI operational on their networks.