Russia’s Digital Underground

How the Kremlin is waging war on information freedom.

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.

This effort also built on earlier initiatives. Russia's security services started buying special software from companies such as Analytic Business Solutions, SyTech, iTeco, and Medialogia for monitoring in the mid-2000s. The most famous example was in 2006, on the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, when the Interior Ministry bought a "Random Information Collection System" from the Russian software company Smartware -- as a precaution, it claimed, against extremism. Now dozens of Russian companies supply software to monitor the activities of opposition groups -- or anyone, theoretically -- in social networks. 

There's evidence these efforts may be going beyond Russia's borders. In August, Kommersant reported that the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media. Once developed, the software could allow SVR personnel to monitor social networks, but also spread propaganda abroad. Reports suggest these efforts will mainly be aimed at other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe.

So far, the government has proven adept at getting major international websites to comply with its directives: Google removed the controversial The Innocence of Muslims video from YouTube on December 26, Twitter blocked an account that promoted drugs on March 15, and on March 29, Facebook took down a page called Club Suicide rather than see the entire network blacklisted.

All of these efforts add up to a larger philosophical and operational aim: the Kremlin intends to establish a system of state sovereignty within cyberspace, with clearly delineated virtual borders. At the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference in Dubai last December, Moscow made efforts to convince the international community to hand over the functions of managing the distribution of domain names and IP-addresses to the ITU. Up until now this has been the responsibility of non-profit organizations based in the United States, organizations that by and large hold information freedom paramount. While the U.S. government exercises little influence over these groups, Russia views the Internet as a vertical hierarchical structure under the control of one country, the United States, and it aims to take some of that power back.

The Russian delegation to the conference proposed limiting the right of access to the Internet in such cases where, "telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature." The Russian proposals were supported by China and 87 other countries, but not the United States or Europe. But Moscow does not intend to let the matter rest. "We could return to that issue at the coming G8 Summit," Andrey Krutskikh, a special coordinator for information technologies in the Foreign Ministry, told us.

Russia's vision of a bordered Internet probably won't come to pass, but that won't stop it from stepping up its controls domestically. The worst-case scenario isn't quite the creation of a national firewall, modeled after China's, as it's unlikely that the Kremlin could do this in practice. But the Russian government could conceivably launch a campaign to bring the world's most popular global web platforms such as Gmail, Facebook, or Twitter under Russian jurisdiction -- either requiring them to be accessible in Russia in the domain extensions under government control (.ru, .su, etc.) or obliging them to be hosted on Russian territory.

"The option that some [global] resources will be obliged to establish Russian representative offices is plausible. I think many companies could agree to this. After all, the Russian Internet market is one of the largest in Europe." said Karen Kazaryan, chief analyst at the nonprofit Russian Electronic Communications Association. If this were to happen, such services would then be subject to local legislation and forced to build in backdoors for monitoring or manipulation by the secret services.

For a long time, Russians enjoyed complete freedom online. In the 1990s and 2000s, Russian officials claimed repeatedly they would never adopt the Chinese approach to Internet censorship. But the Kremlin's fear of the rise of political activism on the Internet and of the protests that gripped Moscow last year must be palpable. If a school in a Siberian village can get raided by the famously cumbersome Russian bureaucracy, what's next?



The Jew in a Box

What does it say about Germany today that in order to see some Jews you’ve got to go to a museum?

BERLIN — It's safe to assume that the German organizers of an exhibit that centers around a Jew sitting in a Plexiglas box, answering questions from museum-goers, anticipated some controversy. "We wanted to provoke, that's true, and some people may find the show outrageous or objectionable. But that's fine by us," the Berlin Jewish Museum's curator says of the exhibit, "The Whole Truth... everything you always wanted to know about Jews." But even they may not have anticipated the level of vitriol that has greeted the project.

The general secretary of the 105,000-member Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan J. Kramer, promptly ridiculed the exhibition, saying, "Why don't they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?" According to Kramer, "They actually asked me if I wanted to participate. But I told them I'm not available." Criticism has come from all sides: The popular German-language pro-Israel, pro-American website, Die Achse des Guten (The Axis of Good), labeled the exhibit "Jews for Dummies."

Germany's postwar treatment of Jews has always been a kind of litmus test for whether the country is on the path to rehabilitation. After the Third Reich exterminated some six million Jews, relations between Germany and Jews have been, well, complex.

"It's a horrible thing to do -- completely degrading and not helpful," says Eran Levy, an Israeli who lives in Berlin, adding that "the Jewish Museum absolutely missed the point if they wanted to do anything to improve the relations between Germans and Jews."

Henryk M. Broder, one of Germany's leading commentators on German-Jewish relations and a journalist with the large right-of-center daily Die Welt, described the exhibit as "pathetic and useless." In an e-mail to me, Broder, who is a German Jew himself and the author of numerous books on the community, compared the exhibit to "the 'völkerschauen' with black Africans" -- shows in late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany in which people from foreign lands were displayed like animals at carnival-like festivals.

Broder said the exhibit is "evidence that the Jews are still exotic regardless of how they try to act and be 'normal."' He added that if something along these lines were done with Muslims in the Jewish Museum, the Muslims would burn the place down. "But the Jews have so little feeling for a sense of honor and self-respect that they need to participate."

In defense of the exhibit, the museum's director, Cilly Kugelmann, issued a postmodern response in a local Berlin paper: "We don't give an exclusive answer. We show many perspectives." Tina Luedecke, a museum representative, justified the "Jew in the box" exhibit, saying: "A lot of our visitors don't know any Jews and have questions they want to ask. With this exhibition we offer an opportunity for those people to get to know more about Jews and Jewish life."

So, is the exhibit a kind of useful -- if by German standards provocative -- pedagogy? Or is it an offensive form of kitsch performance art that dehumanizes Jews? And putting aside the heated feelings, is the show contributing to some wobbly semblance of "normalcy" between German Jews and Germans?

The exhibit spans seven rooms of an upper floor of the Berlin Jewish Museum, which opened in 2001 and was designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. The installation presents 30 questions in the various exhibit rooms and aims to provide insights through quotes, objects, and texts. It's a bit simplistic. "How can you recognize a Jew?", "Are the Jews the Chosen People?", "Is a German allowed to criticize Israel?", and "Why do Jews live in Germany?" are some of the questions that confront visitors.

But the attention-grabbing part of the exhibit takes place in the Plexiglas box, where a diverse group of Jews from the United States, Britain, Germany, Israel, and elsewhere work shifts. Leeor Engländer, a 30 year-old German Jewish journalist at Die Welt, says he sits because "it is important to me to use the attention to clear up prejudices and misunderstandings."

A museum administrator told me during my visit this week that a steady 300 to 400 visitors per day have visited the exhibit since the March 22 opening.

This isn't the first time the museum has provoked controversy. Last year, the museum hosted the University of California, Berkeley academic Dr. Judith Butler, who urged roughly 700 Germans at a sold-out podium discussion to boycott Israel. The crowd lavished euphoric applause on the speaker, then the museum banned audience questions about Butler's cordial words for Hamas and Hezbollah. (Butler had previously described Hamas and Hezbollah as "social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.")

Gerald Steinberg, who heads the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor and is a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, termed the cultural institution at the time the "Berlin anti-Jewish Museum." In an unusual move for Israel's cautious diplomats in Berlin, the embassy rebuked the event at the publicly-funded museum. Butler's boycott call raised the ire of many Jews in Germany: the taxpayer-funded museum's decision to showcase a speaker who would call for a boycott of Israeli institutions recalled the Nazi period when Berlin served as the launching pad for a boycott movement against German-Jewish businesses.

The recent controversies at the museum are a reminder of the strains inherent in the relationship between the over 81 million Germans and the country's tiny Jewish population -- somewhere between 105,000 and 200,000. The late playwright and filmmaker Ranier Werner Fassbinder, summed up the source of the tension well in his 1975 play, Garbage: The City and Death, in which an anti-Semitic character declares, "And it's the Jew's fault, because he makes us feel guilty because he exists. If he'd stayed where he came from, or if they'd gassed him, I would sleep better."

Fassbinder -- in starkly dramatic terms -- neatly captured why the presence of Jews makes many Germans uncomfortable. It is worth recalling that in the immediate post-Holocaust period, Nazis were still present in all walks of life and a repressive silence largely blanketed public discussions about the role of ordinary Germans in the eradication of European Jewry. Of course, it's harder to maintain the illusion when there are living reminders of the crime in your midst. The German social and cultural Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer -- who had fled to the United States during the war because of their Jewish backgrounds and later returned from exile -- diagnosed this phenomenon as "guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism" (Schuldabwehrantisemitsmus).

The pressing question is, are there major generational shifts underway in Germany undercutting the anti-Semitism associated with pathological guilt? Or has Schuldabwehrantisemitsmus morphed into a normalcy that has swung the pendulum back the other way, allowing for a disproportionally intense criticism of the Jewish state and Israelis?

The exhibit tackles this oft-ignored contemporary form of anti-Semitism in the Federal Republic -- namely, the loathing of Israel. Projected on a wall in the first room of the exhibit is a giant version of a December 2012 article from the left-liberal daily Die Taz on how to write a text slamming Israel while insulating oneself against charges of anti-Semitism. With biting irony and sarcasm, Philip Meinhold, the author of the article, provides 10 tips: Find an anti-Israel Jewish "state witness" to quote "since anyone quoting a Jew -- that's the nature of the beast -- cannot hate Jews"; don't cite the radical Islamic organization Hamas in the piece since it will "distract" from the subject of criticizing Israel; and parade your left-wing credentials because leftists in Germany are "known to oppose Nazis" and thus cannot be opposed to Jews.

Hannah Pool, a 20 year-old student from Cologne, told me after reading Meinhold's article that his strong irony sheds light on how "simple the Germans make criticism of Israel," rather than working to understand the historical context of the country's troubles.  Pool said she read Adorno's writings on Germany working its way through its Nazi past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) as a high school student.

She referenced in particular the German novelist and Nobel Laureate Günter Grass, who triggered a recent round of debate over anti-Semitism. Grass, a long-standing Social Democratic party activist and former member of the Nazi Waffen SS as a teenager, declared last April in his widely reprinted poem, "What Must Be Said," that "Israel's atomic power endangers an already fragile world peace" and claimed that the Jewish state seeks to obliterate the Iranian population. The blowback against Grass's poem and his views on the Middle East was potent and the renowned author was sharply criticized by commentators across the political spectrum.

An Act 2 of the Grass debate riveted the nation's media and intellectuals last fall, when Jakob Augstein, a columnist and partial owner of Der Spiegel attacked Israel, Orthodox Jews, and the U.S. Republican Party in a series of commentaries. As a result, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center included Augstein in its 2012 annual list of the "Top Ten Anti-Israel/Anti-Semitic Slurs." Augstein, arguably Grass's greatest advocate in the German media, expressed his gratitude to the novelist for his slashing criticism of the Jewish state: "One must, therefore, thank him for taking it upon himself to speak for us all."

Quotes from Augstein's "When In Doubt, Think Left" column appear at the exhibit." One example cited is his column that attributed all of the woes of the Arab Spring to Israeli and U.S. Republican conduct. "The fire burns in Libya, Sudan, Yemen.... But those who set the fires live elsewhere.... Whom does this all this violence benefit? Always the insane and unscrupulous. And this time it's the U.S. Republicans and Israeli government," wrote Augstein.

But many of the burning questions at the Jewish Museum seem a bit more mundane.

I asked Ido Porat, an Israeli seated in the glass box at the time I visited, what sort of questions he received. He said they included: "Do Jews believe in Hell or Paradise?" and "What brought me to Germany?" Another participant, British-born Ronni Golz, who has lived in Germany for over 40 years, told me "the whole exhibit is enlightening because it is not dead serious." Yet, in the same breath, he added: "It is serious."

Golz said the exhibit sends a humorous message in the tradition of the Mel Brooks film The Producers and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator that "it is time to relax" the fraught relations between Jews and Germans. He said some of the objections -- complaints that the box resembled the one Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was kept in during his trial in Israel in 1961 -- were "neurotic." During his time in the box, Golz said he was questioned about a number of topics: Israel and the peace process, circumcision and Kosher dietary laws, and how many Jews live in Germany.

The frivolous, relaxed atmosphere of the exhibit appealed to Claudio Kühn, a law student, who said he appreciated that it forced the viewer to grapple with difficult questions but in way that generates laughter. But when asked about whether there is growing normalcy between Germans and German Jews, he said the tight security control at the museum's entrance makes him aware of the lack of normalcy.

Karin Schaal-Büscher, a middle-aged woman who works for the teacher's union in Berlin, expressed mixed feelings about the glass box. "The confinement reminds me of Auschwitz and Treblinka," she said. She expressed a dissatisfaction with the lack of women in the exhibit -- the volunteers in the box have mostly been male -- but considered the exhibit to be worthy of a visit.

Perhaps more awkward than anything is the lengths the museum goes to showcase celebrities who are Jewish or have a Jewish connection. Posters, which hang in the last room of the exhibit, show Elizabeth Taylor (who converted to Judaism) and British soccer icon David Beckham (who has a Jewish grandfather) wearing a yarmulke. A video installation runs clips of American Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. There you go, Germany, that's the Jews for you. Laugh a bit.

In the end, it's undoubtedly well-intentioned, but it's hard to imagine that a major change in this most tense of historical relationships will come from this exhibit -- not so long as Germans still have to go to a museum to see Jews. 

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