Second- and Third-Generation Controls Rise in Russian Cyberspace

As governments in the Middle East have cracked down on Internet traffic outright this year, Russian authorities have expanded their control over cyberspace in a more indirect manner, employing a voluntary Internet patrol group, paid pro-government commentators, alleged DDoS attacks, and a new surveillance system to increase pressure on Russian netizens.

The League of Internet Safety
In early February, three Russian telecom companies — including state-owned Rostelecom — launched the "League of Internet Safety." Volunteers have been tasked with reporting "dangerous content" online to the League, whose board includes Russia's Communications and Press Minister. The League's stated goal is to fight child pornography, but security experts are concerned that untrained citizens may incorrectly identify illegal content, while bloggers and activists suspect that the League will promote censorship. Writes Mike Masnick at Techdirt:

Just as in China, the claim is that these volunteers will just be trying to figure out what "bad stuff" to censor -- starting with child pornography. Of course, that's always a good one to start with. It's when things go further that it gets questionable. And the organization has said that it intends to expand to the point of "policing other negative content." That seems like a pretty broad definition and it's not difficult to imagine how it will be abused to censor all sorts of content that is only "negative" to those in power.

The "30 Ruble Army"
Meanwhile, prominent opposition bloggers have begun to notice streams of pro-government comments on their blogs. According to Global Voices Online, these bloggers uncovered a job posting on for commentators who would be paid roughly $400 per month (12,000 rubles) to leave 70 comments per day from 50 different accounts for three months. Global Voices author Vadim Isakov quotes the job ad as saying:

The task is to create the maximum believable wave of comments to degrade the rating of the journal's author and to form a negative attitude toward him. You need to comment each new post correctly and persuasively. It is also important to create a positive image of “United Russia” party [the ruling party in Russia - G.V.]. Can you do it?

In an article published on March 23, 2011, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) dubbed the paid commentators Russia's 30-Ruble Army, a play on China's well-known 50 Cent Party (people paid by the Chinese government to leave pro-regime comments on various forums).

LiveJournal DDoS Attacks
Recent, massive DDoS attacks on LiveJournal — a popular blog host used by a number of Russian political bloggers, including — have placed further pressure on Russian cyberspace. Many bloggers have accused the government of spearheading the attacks. According to the Moscow Times:

"The attack targeted dozens of top bloggers and communities" indiscriminately, said Ilya Dronov, development director with the site's owner, SUP.

"The reason for attack is more than clear in this case — someone wants LiveJournal to disappear as a platform," he said Tuesday in a post on his own LiveJournal blog, Igrick.

The hackers sought to leave the Russian blogosphere without a single stable platform to operate on, dispersing them to other social networks where "it's easier to fight individual users," Dronov wrote.

New Surveillance System
In addition to the second- and third-generation controls described above, the Russian government has also recently announced a request for tender (RFT) for a new Internet monitoring system. According to the RFT, the system will contain a list of "illegal keywords," for which it will constantly scan Russian content. The system is ostensibly focused on comments left on registered online media sites, an approach in line with Russian law, which stipulates that such sites must take down comments containing illegal content after being notified by the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor). However, the list of proposed keywords contains a wide swath of subject matter that some feel is designed to intimidate political activists online. Gregory Asmolov at Global Voices Online writes:

The number and the nature of goals that the search robot should achieve are surprising. It goes ways beyond incitement of national hatred or appeals to violence. In includes not only terrorism, appeals to actions that threaten constitutional order, materials that disclose classified security information, propaganda of drugs and pornography, but also false information about federal and regional officials, as well as content that threatens the freedom and secrecy of choice during elections. Another interesting goal is to discover content with hidden embedded components that seek to influence subconsciousness. If it’s not enough, the program would monitor not only textual, but also visual content (photos and videos).

The Rise of Next-Generation Controls
In ONI's recent book Access Controlled, OpenNet Initiative principal investigators Ron Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski review methods of control and subversion in Russian cyberspace, concluding:

While the possibility of greater direct content controls being applied in the RUNET certainly exists, there is a far greater potential that information controls will continue to evolve along the evolutionary trajectory, toward strategies that seek to compete, en-gage, and dominate opponents in the informational battle space through persistent messaging, disinformation, intimidation, and other tactics designed to divide, confuse, and disable.

If recent events are any indication, Russia is indeed headed down this path.