What's up with Russia's internet

and why it matters

There are several ways the internet as we know it today could end.

It could end with an established capitalist panopticon that monitors what we’re doing and adds a tally to our social credit score, which in turn affects our actual credit score. It could end by well-meaning legislation wringing the rest of the creativity out of the internet. It could end by being completely overtaken by millions of versions of Baby Shark. Or, it could end with the government taking control of the internet and strangling the life out of it. 

Although Edward Snowden highlighted the problems behind of US government surveillance, the main problem with today’s American internet is surveillance capitalism - the collection of logs

The main problem with Russia’s internet is that the Russian government is trying to turn off the connection to the outside world. And, if it succeeds, other countries will want to follow its blueprint.

That this is happening in countries like China is old news - the Great Firewall of China has been present since almost the beginning of the internet in China in the late 1990s. But Russia’s internet censorship has only really started in earnest over the past couple years, in direct response to domestic unrest and unease in relations with both the United States and Europe. 

Given how much flack Russia has caught in the American press over the past couple years, combined with the history of animosity between the two countries during the Cold War, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the countries’ internets have always been at cross-purposes, too. 

But the story of the Russian internet is very much intertwined with the history of the American internet, and I think this is really important to keep in mind as we read today’s American press, full of criticism of Russian hackers and bots. 

It’s only lately that the two have diverged. 

In the late 1980s, an acid-dropping hippie from Oregon opened up the Soviet Union

Joel Schatz was working as an energy advisor to the governor of Oregon. He found the Reagan administration’s approach to the U.S.S.R. alarming. Schatz had Russian-born grandparents and resented the way the Cold War kept people of the two empires isolated from one another. So Schatz and his wife Diane decided to raise funds to travel to the U.S.S.R. as “citizen scouts.” They left in late August 1983.

In the Soviet Union, he met Joseph Goldin, who also had a knack for hustle.

Amazingly, both of the men pushed through the bureaucracy to allow a video link from the United States to the Soviet Union. 

They started first with video chats, 

Schatz has hooked all this up to two direct connections between Moscow and Pittsburgh—copper wires strung across land and sea. (Newly installed trans-Atlantic fiber-optic cables had not yet gone online.) Moscow telephones still operated on tsarist-era, un-insulated, copper wires. Schatz and the technicians in Moscow connected their computers to this copper-based technology with alligator clips.

Soon they were linking all kinds of small groups across the Cold War divide: maternity ward nurses and doctors, members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Diane Schatz, an artist herself, linked up cartoonists. 

Then he moved on to establishing SovAmTeleport (with the help of funding by George Soros, who was at the time supporting dissidents in the almost-former Soviet Union), the first international telecommunications venture. 

Thus, the Russian internet was brought to life by an American. 

The software running newsgroups also came from America. Unix was smuggled into Russia by scientists who translated parts of it into Cyrillic and adapted it for the Soviet Union’s ancient computers, creating the operating system DEMOS

In 1990, programmers from Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute (Russia's leading nuclear energy research and development institution) managed to access the internet, register their domain (*su) and quietly, without trumpeting their presence, sign up to a number of Usenet groups. A couple of weeks later Vadim Antonov, the first Soviet internet user, posted a joke about socialism, capitalism and communism in a meat queue, a ubiquitous phenomenon of the time. It was a decisive moment for Muscovites. . 

Ironically, many of the first users of what began to be called RuNet were Russian-speaking faculty and students at American universities, since the internet was already available there and you had to have good English to browse it. There was no Cyrillic available yet - that came later.)

I was amazed to learn all of this from a fantastic Russian-language documentary that came out recently called Холивар - Holywar, or the slang for the flame-filled discussions in the early days of RuNet. The English subtitles on the documentary series are excellent, so I recommend checking it out

As with the American internet, the Russian internet’s early days were full of whimsy, fun, experimentation, and lots and lots of piracy. Many of the things the early Russian internet did mimicked America, because that’s where all the innovation was. Rambler and Yandex, the first search engines, were based on Yahoo and MSN Search. Yandex still functions as today’s Google in Russia and has diversified into areas like taxis, traffic, food delivery, and much more. Vkontakte, a Facebook copycat site run by Pavel Durov (we’ll get to him later), was also founded around this time. 

The Russian internet market was highly dependent both financially and for inspiration from American companies. Much of Russian internet slang and computer terminology - such as holywar - comes directly from the English. 

At first, the Russian government didn’t care for and didn’t understand the internet. Its users were less than 5% of the population, mostly university staff and kids of oligarchs who could afford it, amidst a country that was economically devastated and socially crippled by the fall of communism. The early days of RuNet (right around when Elon Musk was in the country) were free and weird. 

Putin during his first term had no interest in the internet - he’d never even used it and viewed it as something strange and grotesque. The next president, Medvedev, had no real power other than as a government mouthpiece, but he liked looking cool. He embraced American technology by opening a Twitter account while at the Twitter office in San Francisco. His was the first in the Russian government. (Of course, a parody account was created right away.) 

Then, it became clear to Russian politicians (as it recently has in America) that the internet could be used for political manipulation. In 2012, Russia experienced mass protests after what many called a flawed election (with the word flawed doing a lot of work here). First came the Internet blacklist law, which sought to create a blocked list of sites that, among other things, contained pornography, hosted drug ads, or included ‘extremist ideas’, with the ability for the government to expand the blacklist at any time. 

As of today, the blocklist is alarmingly huge (and you can take a look at all of it on GitHub, which was also blocked, and unblocked, in 2014):

Roskomnadzor maintains a real-time authoritative blocklist and passes laws that require ISPs to block content. Currently the blocklist contains 170,000 domains, 1,681,000 IPs, and 39 subnets. It has around 10 times more websites than Citizen Lab’s curated blocklist from all countries combined. Even with a list of such scale, our measurements show that ISPs are successful at blocking.

Then, the power and influence of Roskomnadzor (RKN), the Russian federal government authority responsible for implementing the blocklist, grew. In 2016, the Duma (Russian parliament) passed the Yarovaya law, which require telecom operators to record and store texts, phone calls, and the associated metadata for three years. 

This year, Russia cracked down on VPNs, which Russians have been using to circumvent the ever-increasing level of censorship. RKN approached VPNs and also asked them to ban the same websites that Russia does. VPNs, who are not under Russian jurisdiction, fought back.

In 2018, the government tried to block access to Telegram, Russia’s favorite messaging platform, run by Pavel Durov. He had previously created VKontakte, and got in trouble with politicians who wanted him to take down pages of opposition candidates. He declined to do so. In 2014, he refused to hand over data of Ukranian protesters, and refused to block the page of Alexei Navalny, the figurehead of the Russian opposition. As a result, he was ousted as the CEO of the company, and left Russia. He is currently a citizen of Saint Kitts and Nevis, a citizenship which he obtained through “donating $250,000 to the country's Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation, and secured US$300 million in cash within Swiss banks.” All of this is just the surface-level stuff from Wikipedia, by the way.

After all of THAT, he founded Telegram, a messaging service based in Berlin which works very much like Whatsapp, except it’s not owned by Facebook and does not decrypt your messages. 

Telegram became extremely popular in Russia, both for private chats and for subscribing to channels full of news, jokes, and much more. As an aside, Telegram is my personal favorite messaging service. It’s fast, easy, works well, and also because it’s really done the concept of stickers well - where else can you find a pack of Mark Lizardberg stickers? 

Governments hate Telegram because they can never bring it down and they can’t decrypt it (yet). Such was the case in Hong Kong a couple weeks ago. Such was the case when RKN demanded that Telegram hand over its encryption keys in 2018 so that it could look at the messages of six numbers it claimed were sending crime-related messages. Telegram refused, and RKN tried to block Telegram in Russia, with tried being the operative key word. 

If all of this sounds bleak, it is. But there is a ray of hope because RKN is incompetent. For an agency meant to police the blocklists of a country of 150 million, the agency employs 3,000 people, not many of which are actually technically capable. In trying to block Telegram IPs, RKN  took down its own website and half of the rest of the Russian internet. Telegram stayed up. The Russian internet, all still sending memes on Telegram, had a field day with this. 

Durov took a picture of himself shirtless. in the Emirates. (Weird flex, but ok.)

My favorite movie is “300”. The story about 300 Spartans fighting to protect the freedom of their compatriots will inspire people thousands of years from now.

P. S. News from the front: Russian authorities have blocked 18 million IP addresses to ban Telegram, but the app remains accessible for Russians. Thank you for all the support and love 🇷🇺 #digitalresistance #putinshirtlesschallenge
April 19, 2018

Things are a little less funny today. In spite of the common threads of connections between the Russian and American internet, the atmosphere between Russia and the United States is as tense as ever.

In 2016, I wrote,

Often when I listen to the news from Russia, I wonder why I am trying to teach my daughter a language and culture she will have no access to. Because it’s very clear to me that Russia is closing to the West.

I don’t mean that it is going to impose sanctions on Western goods, that it is going to make it harder for Russians to vacation abroad, or that it is going to isolate itself politically, all of which it has already done.

I mean that Putin’s Russia is going to become a country that is impossible for Russians to leave, and for foreigners to enter. It is going to become a country that runs on a sanitized, censored Russian internet, and literature and culture that focus on the glory days of czarist Russia and the accomplishments of the Soviet Union. 

Several things have happened recently that indicate the continuation of a downward trend.

First and most important, the law that went into motion on November 1 creating a sovereign Russian internet that can be closed off from the rest of the Internet in the dubious case of a “cyberattack on national interests.”

The new law obliges internet service providers to route incoming international traffic through internet exchange points (IXPs) based in Russia, ensuring the centralised operation of the internet in a crisis situation. It also obliges service providers to install special devices which would assist Roskomnadzor, the state's communications watchdog, to block undesirable internet traffic. These would send data to a central monitoring facility which could examine such traffic in real time using DPI (deep packet inspection), a method considered far more effective than blocking distinct IP addresses. The bill also calls for the creation of a domestic version of the domain name system (DNS) or the phonebook of the internet, given that in the event of an internet cutoff, Russian service providers would be unable to connect to foreign DNS servers. 

For now, this internet is being called Чебурнет, Cheburnet, after Cheburashka, a cute and completely helpless bear-like children’s Soviet cartoon character. But it might not be that toothless; it’s already gone into effect in some places in the Urals if RKN is to be believed. And blocking select communication channels is already a common practice in areas like Ingushetia, where the government completely turned off phone and access to Twitter and Facebook in response to protests. 

Second, as RuNet users are being targeted by their own government, American companies are more and more antagonistic towards Russia. Several weeks ago, there was a huge kerfuffle when GitLab (which makes much of its work transparent and public) decided to hold offers that were already out to potential employees in Russia for specific security-related roles at Gitlab.com due to security concerns expressed by customers. 

As of a couple days ago, they clarified it a bit, to say that they would continue to hire from Russia, except for these roles: 

this internal decision would only affect a few specific job roles for future hires that require administrator access to servers hosting sensitive customer-specific GitLab.com data to do their jobs.

But to me this speaks to a larger trend of American companies turning away from anything that can possibly touch Russian servers.  Russian companies are also turning inwards, partly at the request of the Russian government: Yandex has been asked to change its corporate structure to disengage from foreign ownership. 

Finally, what’s whipping all of this into a frenzy is the American media, which has been focusing on Russia as a source of contention since the 2016 election, creating lots of negative sentiment for Russians both in Russia and the United States who have nothing to do with the government. 

So this is where we are now: a Russian internet that was founded with optimism and collaboration between people who wanted to see the world get along is slowly, ominously closing to the outside world (which, at the same time, is turning its back on Russia). 

All of this is worrying not only for Russians and those watching Russia from the sidelines, but for the world as a whole. If Russia closes itself off and is able to control its own internet, what’s to stop other countries from doing the same? Turkey, for example, would sure love to get its hands on the blueprint that Russia started.

And, what’s to stop another Cold War, maybe this time known as the Cyber Cold War, or perhaps Cold War 2: Electric Boogaloo.

At the beginning of Холивар,  the interviewers asked Joel Schatz what he thought of the fact that, now that all borders were open, people were fighting and even angrier at each other than ever. 

“Maybe it’s just human nature,” he said, and sighed. 

Art: To Russia, With Asses and Others, Chagall, 1919

(Vicki’s note: Thank you to Normcore reader Natalia for the story idea! I’ve been ruminating about this issue for some time and she gave me the nudge. Have story ideas for Normcore? Submit them here.)

What I’m reading lately

  1. ICYMI, I wrote a piece for Stack Overflow last week on the end of life of Python 2 and why a lot of companies won’t move to Python 3:

  2. Facial recognition protesters in Washington, DC

  3. What to do if you’re working on an ethically questionable machine learning project

  4. Formal foundations of serverless

  5. Weird internet careers:

  6. Why are so many capital cities in South America in the mountains?” “Pirates”

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About the Author:

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and an infant, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.