Kremlin Vies with China to See Who Controls the Internet Better

Population control is the new name of the game.

By Fred Dunkley,

In a thinly veiled attempt to gain control of the internet, the Russian State Duma has passed two bills designed to do two things: ostensibly halt the spread of “fake news” and keep people from spreading information that “disrespects” the government. But Russians aren’t having it.

On Sunday, thousands took to the streets across the country to protest the government’s “digital sovereignty bill” that will require all Russian telecoms companies to reroute internet traffic through the state telecom regulator, Roskomnadzor. It means censorship and what protesters are now calling the rise of the “internet iron curtain”.

On March 7, the Russian State Duma—the lower house of parliament—passed the two bills, and now they go up for a second vote later this month. If passed, they will be signed into law by President Putin. In Moscow alone on Sunday, some 15,000 took to the streets, Reuters reports.

Everyone saw it coming. The precursor to all of this was the April 2017 ban on VPNs used to bounce IP addresses around and mask location. That year, Putin signed into law that bill, prohibiting the use of internet proxy services.

Then, in April 2018, they banned Telegram, the messaging app that the authorities hate because it’s encrypted and makes it more difficult for them to monitor. Of course, the Kremlin’s spin is that it’s being used by terrorists, but that’s today’s justification for nearly every infringement on privacy rights (and not just in Russia). Dissent is what they’re after much more than terrorists.

But the ban on Telegram didn’t really work, according to The Moscow Times, citing critics of the move. But the new draft laws—if passed—could “give the government the sweeping ability to censor online content, and going forward, actually be able to block apps like Telegram” the English-language daily wrote.

The government’s moves against the internet are also being passed off as a cybersecurity necessity, and as part of the Kremlin’s goals to shut its cyberspace off to the rest of the world temporarily to simulate an all-out cyberwar. Ostensibly, this is to see how well an internet-independent Russia would fare if cut off by other nations. The reality is what we’re seeing now: Draconian measures to cut off any digital dissent.

None of this is sudden. The Kremlin has been trying to control this since the late 1990s when they stepped up pressure on ISPs to track and hand over information on dissenters. That was the birth of a massively invasive project called SORM.  But SORM is about eavesdropping, and the new bills are about all-out control.

Population control is the new name of the game, and Russia seems bent on vying with China to see who can do it better.

China’s version is rather more subtle, if not more sinister for it. It’s also much broader and more invasive. Take the Chinese ‘social credit score’ system. In September last year, Beijing rolled out a new platform called ‘Piyao’ which removes rumors and fake news disseminated online in a move said to control what Beijing considers disinformation.

Prior to that, we saw the emergence of China’s ‘Social Media Credit Score” system, which uses big data and AI algorithms to decide who is an upstanding citizen and to punish those who are—much like a financial credit score works, only far more sinister. Its goal, formally, is to “forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust if glorious”. Put differently, it will marginalize and ostracize anyone who doesn’t have a high score—which means making it difficult to get jobs, or even (as we recently saw) travel by plane.

China’s system is a more insidious because at its heart it is designed to actually convince the population to do its dirty work for it, while Russia takes a more aggressive and open approach to control.

But we can also see where things are going in Russia in a less complicated way. Take the ban on VPNs for instance: In China, Apple has agreed to remove most major VPN apps from its local App Store at Beijing request, RFE/RL points out. It wants the massive Chinese market badly enough to play by Beijing’s rules. By Fred Dunkley,

And when it comes to debt, where do Chinese consumers fit in? Read… State of the World’s Biggest Debt Slaves: Americans Wimp Out in 11th Place

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  32 comments for “Kremlin Vies with China to See Who Controls the Internet Better

  1. njbr says:

    Facial recognition software is in use in China to the extent where by the time you finish jaywalking the street, your face and name are on a display screen, shaming you as you step up on the curb. In some instances, the fine is extracted from your Wechat account instantly.

    (In the 2018 Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting, Charlie Munger identified WeChat as one of the few potential competitors to Visa, Mastercard and American Express.)

    • Mike says:

      It is true that these murderous quasi-dictatorships are using the internet to control their public. However, the corrupt, ultra-rich, crony oligarchy that controls this country is doing that better.

      As discussed in wikileaks and by a few, brave people, the complex that controls our country already uses the internet to monitor and shape our opinions and limit opinions that diverge from those desired. E.g., The attempt to make the Federal Reserve bankster cronies be seen as heroes or at least benign. E.g., The careful failure to cover or discuss and ridicule the grave economic risks that the banksters’ biggest casino-banks pose to the U.S.

  2. Ray says:

    Those Ruskies are dumb. The way to do it is to have your intelligence service bankroll the “private” service providers to the extent that they monopolize service provision. That way all censorship can be carried out behind a curtain of vague terms of service. No need for pesky rule of law encumbrances.

  3. Petunia says:

    The Ukrainian/Russian programmers will eat China’s lunch. China skimming fines from accounts they have access to is easy. Matching id photos to phones they track is easy. Nothing fancy going on there just total digitization of all systems.

    Russia is trying to cut off access to protect its infrastructure in an emergency. Their main problem is that the Ukrainian Eastern European programmers can write VPNs in their sleep and they are probably already in every app they produce.

  4. Cyclops says:

    Spying on the dumb and innocent!

  5. VARMAT says:

    Just wait until Huawei gets traction on 5G. Right now, there isn’t anyone else close. People have claimed that Huawei has been supported by the Chinese government and is beholden to them. I don’t know about the second part, but the first part is likely not true any more, Huawei may have had help early on in its life (in the late 90s, early 2000s) as it decimated Western companies too stupid to know they were getting slaughtered, but not any more. Huawei today pretty much stands on its own as a private company. But would you trust it? I doubt it.

    Let’s put it this way, if no one trusts the US telcos and equipment makers who are getting infiltrated by the NSA, who in there right mind is going to trust uncle Ren who is still a member of the communist party.

    As for Apple, Leader Tim can kowtow all he likes, it isn’t going to save the iPhone in China. Chinese as a whole are starting to look at iPhone like yesterday’s news. They could use an Android just as well as long as they can slap WeChat on the phone. That is the nexus of everything anyway.

  6. doug says:

    And the USofA is watching all the moves and seeing which ones work best…

  7. RagnarD says:

    Great piece Fred. Thanks

  8. RagnarD says:

    Any thoughts as to why an excellent rticle on government such as this solicited so few comments relative to others? Is it related to Safehaven as the poster, which *maybe* affects how it is distribute beyond your site?
    MC01’s pieces seem to get a relatively large # of comments despite being about a more obscure/smaller population of interest topics.

    • fajensen says:

      For me, this is what one expects of China and Russia.

      It will bite them on the butt soon enough, because with increased censorship and the government pushing for conformity, their leaders will end up being poorly informed on what is really going on inside their countries.

      Maybe they even come to believe in their own greatness and inherent superiority, which will lead to the kinds of unforced mistakes that we would expect from Washington DC and the UK; the former can afford it, having the reserve currency and all, the others cannot.

    • Leser says:

      Fair question, maybe a fair bit get moderated away ;-)

    • Wolf Richter says:

      It’s getting relatively little traffic, compared to the other articles.

      The comment section has also attracted the usual mini-wave of pro-Russian propaganda, which I always block or delete. This happens with every article on Russia, no matter what. Russian propaganda is a well-oiled machine. People spread it wittingly or unwittingly, because it’s fun to spread. And some of it is from paid trolls.

      • RagnarD says:

        I have / had a couple of teenagers B20/G18, big users of Instagram, FB, Snapchat, etc. My son considers himself a communist and my daughter has a lot of SJW moments.

        I can only imagine the kind of ideological warfare that would have taken place on these Apps back in the cold war.

        That said, I have to believe that our kids minds are getting addled with a LOT of sugar coated enemy state propaganda (not necessarily pro Russia or China, just anti USA/anti Capitalist/Freedom, etal.) even today. Why should Russia, China, be setting up propaganda trolls of all sorts to disrupt our youth?

        As someone said, “we’d consider it an act of war if an enemy state inflicted on us, what we have inflicted on ourselves with respect to our public school system.

        But IMO, there’s no reason to think those enemies are not working hard against us on these free, unlimited access networks on which adults pretty much have NO clue as to what is being said, propagated, etc.

      • Petunia says:


        My previous comment on Ukrainian, Russian, and Eastern European programmers vs Chinese is based on personal experience. In no way do I want to promote pro Russian propaganda.

        I was taught Computer Science by Jewish professors mostly of Russian and Eastern European descents. These professors spent summers teaching back in the old countries. This was before the wall came down. They often related stories about how much was accomplished over there in spite of the lack of resources. Those students had to know their math and computing forward and backward because they rarely got more than one shot at a computer. Many learned how to code without ever running a program on a real computer. They knew theory 100%.

        After entering the work place my experience was that the Eastern Europeans were much better coders, they knew how to jump through hoops to accomplish a task. The Chinese programmers liked to follow orders and didn’t much care if it worked or not.

        I believe the best cyber security experts are now based in Estonia. This is not a surprise to me. Russia will need to go back to the dark ages to keep those guys out of their communications traffic.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          Oh I know, there are many superb Russian coders, both in Russia and those that have come to the US — very much sought-after by US companies.

        • RagnarD says:

          I heard the same stories from Indian friends – doing it all on paper in the late 90s.
          But I got my BS in CS in the late 80s and usually I’d know my code worked before I typed It in too. It’s actually a lot easier ( or was a lot easier ) to loop through it in the quiet of library than in front of a screen. Now the debugging tools give a big assist.

          Not saying Americans are at the cyber level of Estonians fighting for their lives against Russians, just that back befor time X, Everyone did it on paper first.

        • Petunia says:

          Ragnar D,

          Not to date myself but my professors berated us for complaining about using punch cards. That’s were the sermons came in about the Russian and Eastern European programmers. We had long wait times but 24/7 access.

        • RagnarD says:

          Haha. Yeah, I always thought – back when I was in college, “I don’t think I could have done this if I had to do it with punch cards.” It just wasn’t THAT much for or THAT rewarding. And all the stories you’d hear from professors or older programmers at work, about the exploding stack of 100 -200 or so cards, meticulously stacked in order, blowing into the air. Ugh.
          Programming sucked enough as it was. :)

  9. Ed Kennedy says:

    It won’t work. People were able to communicate before the internet. If excessive monitoring from China and Russia makes it unsafe to use text and email, people will resort to other communication methods. I can easily predict hand delivered thumb drives read in computers that are never connected to the internet.

    An example I remember reading a while ago:
    After a military training exercise, the losing team protested that the winners had to be using unauthorized radio frequencies to control the take-off and landing of their airplanes. “We were monitoring all approved frequencies, and heard no radio activity surrounding their surprise aerial attack”. The winners had to reveal that they had shut off all the radios in their advanced planes and used the pre-WW2 method of flags and light signals to control the runways.
    When you know that a communication method is compromised, an alternate will be found.

    • Wisdom Seeker says:

      Over the long term, centrally-controlled internet will be as unsuccessful as state-run enterprises. Stifling freedom and curtailing individual initiative will hurt more than they help. Talent needs to be able to produce without artificial constraints, so the cleanest dirty shirt will attract the and develop the best talent, and out-produce the others.

    • Or radio free Europe

      • Ed Kennedy says:

        Remember Communist short wave radio jamming? This is just the newest chapter in a long running story of information control.

  10. A. Human says:

    Kremlin: Russian authorities not blocking Runet, but protecting it from shutdown

    The bills are designed to ensure Internet’s viability amid potential aggressive steps in cyber space against Russia, the Kremlin spokesman said


  11. Opponents of the US internet, who want an open system not the Neoliberal – market based economic system we have, would prefer the internet was owned by government. Irony that Russia has that, and we don’t. Though of course Russia (and China) would use it to suppress dissent, which is counter indicative, in the US it creates dissent (and all sorts of Q movement irrational stuff). The notion of privacy is quaint, and the result of anonymity is derogatory, people express their worst emotions through the secret ballot. Voters should be liable for their choices. That’s my plan for a balanced budget, vote for A, A runs a budget deficit, those who voted for A get a tax bill.

  12. Jayq9 says:

    I suspect the less apocylptic headlines draw less attention from the commenters. Having say, an article on why saving 15% of your paycheck for a rainy day is less exciting than talking about a housing bubble bursting or the like. That’s not really Wolf’s fault but just the nature of what most people appear to gravitate to these days.

    We recognize the notion of click bait by authors but seem to perhaps forget readers themselves oftentimes want click bait or overtly provocative articles with corresponding titles.

    Now to segway back to the article in question, it’s interesting that while the above is happening, our buddy Zuckerberg is making major changes to facebook moving distinctly away from public discussion and taking conversations private. That’s exactly what the powers at be, alphabet soup agencies, and the intel state want.

    The US model for better or worse is to let people give you all the information willingly and then use the telecoms/social media/news as fronts to disseminate and interpret it.

  13. Shawn says:

    The Russians have this sovereignty bill, the Chinese have a ‘social credit score’ among other things and we have Google, Facebook, AT&T feeding info to the NSA. We have no leg to stand on.

    • Jack says:

      Shawn is Right on the money.

      Freedom is earned NOT given.once you’re on the internet you’re Not anonymous anymore, even in the so called ( dark web).

      If the resources of the state( any self respecting state) are brought to bear you’ll be found!

      So for the majority of humans what we need is very little, a bit of freedom, shelter, two ( preferably 3! ) meals and we ( history shows this) relinquish all our rights ( usually incrementally) and carry on our lives..

      The above Not withstanding we’re much more savvy than what the authors of ( control) might perceive, what we lack is the motivation and greed.

    • ZeroBrain says:

      For sure. I appreciate the news, but also find it somewhat holier-than-thou because it didn’t even mention in passing the increasing corporate censorship or that everything we do here in the USA is tracked by plugins and scripts, etc. Our data is for sale. Our population control mechanisms are gentler for now, but we’re headed in the same general direction.

      Fundamentally the problem comes down to a lack of people-power over the government – periodic elections only throw out the most egregious actors after they get caught. We have no comprehensive system for identifying societal goals, designing and implementing strategies to achieve those goals, and evaluating project leaders and politicians according to outcomes. Instead we’re stuck with slogans and lobbyists.

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