Great Russian Firewall? Inside Moscow's Internet Overhaul

Kremlin policy under discussion could mean censorship.
Kremlin policy under discussion could mean censorship.
Vladislav Noviy, Anna Balashova, Denis Skorobogatko and Roman Rozhkov

MOSCOW — Russia’s deteriorating relationship with the West could lead to a complete restructuring of Internet policy in the country, Kommersant has learned.

The Kremlin is currently holding internal discussions about instituting complex methods for tightening the control over Internet access providers. This means filtering content at all levels of content, forbidding the registration of .ru and .rf domain names outside of the Russian Federation, and forbidding local and regional networks from sending data to Internet networks outside of the country.

Under such a system, the government would wield unlimited powers to apply censorship, both experts and Internet operators say. It would also mean unavoidable increases in price and decreases in quality of online access for customers.

Kommersant first learned about this proposed digital control policy from a well-placed source involved in the Russian telecommunications market. It was confirmed by a federal official and two managers of Internet provider companies. According to our sources, the proposal is being hammered out by a work group that is part of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to the proposal that Kommersant saw, Russia would like to create three network levels: local, regional and national. Then it would forbid regional and local networks from sending information internationally. Content would be subject to “filters” at all levels, and it would be illegal to have DNS servers for domains that end in .ru or .rf (Russia’s two domains) registered outside of Russia. In addition, the working group has suggested doing away with the current domain center that handles registration of .ru and .rf domains and giving that responsibility to a government agency.

Representatives from large Russian Internet companies say that the institution of content filtration and a hierarchical network system would lead many smaller and foreign operators to leave the market.

One source say that currently there isn't any content filtration, but that the government is already considering limiting access to illegal and pirated content. “It’s possible that they are talking about limiting content in a certain language, like English, for example,” says the source. “But if that’s the case, this proposal violates Russian constitutional rights of access to information.”

Setting up this network hierarchy would also mean restructuring the network in Russia, which would require all operators to spend a huge amount of money. It would be expensive to establish DNS servers in Russia. Right now, most DNS servers are in the United States, with some others located in Germany and China.

A hierarchical structure for the Russian Internet would lead to higher costs for Russian consumers as well as a decrease in the quality of Internet access, because operators would no longer be able to determine the best route for traffic, another source says. Meanwhile, a ban on registering .ru and .rf domains from certain geographic areas would simply make people stop registering those domains.

The government also wants to force Internet providers to rebroadcast television programs, but sources say that’s impossible, since part of the Russian telecommunications infrastructure is still analog. Having a government agency translating web addresses into IP addresses and back, as the proposal suggests, would essentially “cut the country off from the Internet,” one expert tells Kommersant.

Safety measures?

Andrei Kolesnikov, coordination center diretor for the .ru and .rf domains, mentioned that most DNS servers are outside of Russia, but that is the case because it is usually the fastest way to serve requests from Russian users.

“If the proposal to move all DNS servers into Russia is adopted, it would allow Russia to isolate itself if there was a conflict, to limit the information available on the Internet in Russia,” he says. “To a large extent, that would mean restricting online traffic coming from outside of Russia into Russia, not necessarily the other way around.”

Kolesnikov is surprised at the suggestion that the coordination center might be abolished and its functions taken over by the government. “A representative from the Telecommunications Ministry sits on our board, and has veto power. In the whole time that we have been active, the government has never had any complaints,” he says.

But Denis Richka, a representative of Adado Telecom, says there are many positive elements in the proposal, such as allowing the law to be updated for modern technology.

Large Russian Internet companies have been expecting new regulations. Last week, Putin said that the Internet was developed as a special project of the CIA and continues to be developed as part of the American secret services. Since most traffic goes through servers located in the United States, where all Internet traffic is monitored, the Russian president considers it important that the major Russian online resources be all physically located in Russia.

Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov tells Kommersant that he hadn’t heard of the working group. “I don’t think that those kinds of primitive tactics would work. The real task is to protect our national interests, but without decreasing the rate of development, without putting downward pressure on the competitive environment. It’s not possible to have effective development and competition under a monopoly,” Peskov says.

Top representatives of several major Russian Internet companies, as well as the Ministry of Telecommunications, all refused to comment.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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