Russia Considers a Chinese Approach to Digital Content

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Was a LinkedIn blockage the canary in the coal mine?

A recent report that Russia has been collaborating with China on a new system of internet filtering, prefaced last week with the blocking of access to LinkedIn under a controversial personal data protection law, show a burgenoning shift in policy from the Russian government, which may be looking for greater control over online content in the country.

Last week, The Guardian reported that Russia had been working on including elements similar to that of China’s Great Firewall into its own system of internet filtering and control. (Russian experts say that China is unlikely to be involved in any new cybersecurity scheme.)

"There is a trend for stepping up cooperation with Chinese companies for supply of telecom and IT equipment," Dmitry Marinichev, Russia's internet ombudsman, tells Billboard. "But that absolutely does not mean that China will be allowed into the heart of Russia's information security." According to Marinichev, it is too early to say that Russia is going to take up China's highly restrictive model of control over the Internet.

"[Russia and China] are actively cooperating in the development of information technologies and their security and protection," Denis Davydov, director of the League of Safe Internet, an organization aimed at preventing the dissemination of harmful online content, tells Billboard. "Certainly, the experience of China, which is at the cutting edge, is of interest to us."

"However, it wouldn't be correct to bring everything down to the creation of something similar to the Chinese firewall," he continued, adding that Russia needs to develop its own tool "to strengthen government control over the internet, for the safety of its users."

A year ago, China unilaterally removed millions of songs from the web over their content. That was followed by China telling streaming services to police their content catalogs for work that would run afoul of opaque rules maintained by the Ministry of Culture. Most recently, that country introduced a hard-to-digest set of cybersecurity rules. Whether Russia will adopt similar rules around digital content remains to be seen, though early indications seem to point towards web security being its central focus.

The idea of greater control over the internet in Russia was first floated this past May, when the communications ministry reportedly developed a draft law stipulating content blocking and vetting based on a model similar to one used in China. The draft law is still under consideration, and its specifics have never been made public.

Some steps have already been made, a clear indication that the Russian government is serious about the new measures. In mid-November, a Moscow district court ruled that LinkedIn had failed to observe a 2014 federal law stipulating that Russian citizens' personal data must be stored on servers located in Russia. Access to LinkedIn was consequently blocked for Russian users. The U.S. embassy in Moscow expressed concern about the decision, but Russian authorities did not react.