7:00 AM ET, January 13, 2020
Cyberspace, as many liberal democratic governments see it, is inherently free and open, a boon to democracy that states should not control. Russia, which does not share this view, worries that information flowing into the country may bring malign foreign influence, while data flowing out may provide leverage to its enemies. So the government is expanding “data localization”: rules and infrastructure to help the state keep data on home soil. These efforts will have repercussions far beyond Russia’s own borders: they will be closely studied by other authoritarian states keen to adopt new mechanisms of control — and by liberal democracies that may be rethinking their own rejections of the notion of cyber sovereignty.
Fending off foreign influence is a centuries-old obsession of Russia’s leaders, who began to formally organize their concerns about the internet in 2000’s Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation. At the time, the government was already reassembling a Soviet-like control of print and TV media outlets, yet Russian citizens freely used the internet to share their thoughts and concerns with each other and the world.
The Kremlin accelerated its cyber sovereignty push after the 2010-12 Arab Spring, whose popular revolts were abetted by the internet’s enabling of online-offline citizen mobilization. In 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decried these and other “color revolutions”; Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu added that such uprisings “are always accompanied by information warfare.” In 2018, Russia enacted a (rather easily circumvented) ban on the secure-messaging app Telegram. In 2019, a new domestic internet law allowed tighter regulation. In particular, it laid the legal foundation for the Kremlin’s drive to reshape the country’s networking infrastructure so it could cut access to the global internet, if and when desired.