The Kremlin has joined forces with Chinese authorities to bring the internet and its users under greater state control
Russia has been working on incorporating elements of China’s Great Firewall into the “Red Web”, the country’s system of internet filtering and control, after unprecedented cyber collaboration between the countries.
A decision earlier this month to block the networking site LinkedIn in Russia is the most visible in a series of measures to bring the internet under greater state control.
Legislation was announced this month that gives the Kremlin primacy over cyberspace – the exchange points, domain names and cross-border fibre-optic cables that make up the architecture of the internet.
In the summer, a measure known as Yarovaya’s law was introduced, which requires Russia’s telecoms and internet providers to store users’ data for six months and metadata for three years.
A group of Kremlin and security officials is driving the offensive against internet freedoms. The government fears the web could be used to mobilise protesters and disseminate dangerous ideas and information and it is looking for ways to switch off connections in times of crisis.
The strategy is being developed in close cooperation with China after a string of high-level meetings in Beijing and Moscow this year. At their first cybersecurity forum, in April, top Chinese officials and their Russian counterparts gathered in Moscow for the talks. Delegates included Lu Wei, the head of China’s state internet information office, Fang Binxing, the so-called father of the Great Firewall and Igor Shchyogolev, President Vladimir Putin’s assistant on internet issues and former minister of communications.
“The principal agreement to have a forum was reached by Igor Shchyogolev and Fang Binxing at a meeting in December 2015 in Beijing,” said Denis Davydov, the executive director of the misleadingly named League of Safe Internet, a government-affiliated group that has drafted internet-filtering legislation and recruited teams of volunteers to patrol the web for “harmful content”.
Earlier this year, the security council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, who was head of the Russian Federal Security Service during Putin’s 2000-08 presidency, had two meetings with Chinese politburo members on information security; and in June, Putin went to Beijing to sign a joint communique about cyberspace.
What the Russians want most from China is technology. Russia has no means of handling the vast amounts of data required by Yarovaya’s law, and it cannot rely on western technologies because of sanctions.
However, the Chinese are willing to lend a hand. In August it was reported that Blat, the Russian telecoms equipment manufacturer, was in talks with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms company, to buy technologies for data storage and produce servers to implement Yarovaya’s law.
The Chinese officials also ensured senior Huawei staff were present at key information security conferences in Russia, and the company was the major sponsor of the Russian information security forum held in Beijing in October.
“Huawei is essentially an arm of the Chinese state, whoever nominally owns it,” said Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China. “Its origins are murky, its growth far too fast for a private company in China, state officials support its efforts, and the absence of competition from state enterprises is another important tell.”
The Russians apparently see no other option than to invite Chinese heavyweights into the heart of its IT strategy. “China remains our only serious ‘ally’, including in the IT sector,” said a source in the Russian information technology industry, adding that despite hopes that Russian manufacturers would fill the void created by sanctions “we are in fact actively switching to Chinese”.
In Russia, the strategy for greater collaboration with China has been developed and promoted by top-level Kremlin officials, generals and businessmen. These include Patrushev, Shchyogolev and Konstantin Malofeev, the billionaire founder of Orthodox channel Tsargrad TV who is the subject of EU sanctions for his connections to separatists in Ukraine. The group is believed to be the driving force behind Yarovaya’s law.
On 7 November, China adopted a controversial cybersecurity law that revived international concerns about censorship in the country. In a sign that collaboration between the countries is mutually beneficial, the legislation echoes Russia’s rules on data localisation and requires “critical information infrastructure operators” to be stored domestically – the law LinkedIn fell foul of. It seems the exchange of ideas has already borne fruit.