Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, authors of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries (PublicAffairs, 2015), discussed their book at Columbia University on Tuesday, October 20th. The event was presented by the university’s Harriman Institute and hosted by institute director Alexander Cooley.
The authors, Russian journalists with extensive knowledge of their subject, expanded upon the themes in The Red Web, which offers a fascinating look inside Russia’s surveillance state, including the government’s attempts to control the Internet and the work of activists to keep it free. Topics ranged from the SORM surveillance technology the government forces communications companies to buy and install, to events that made international news, such as an attempt to block a Wikipedia page that resulted in the brief blocking of all of Wikipedia. Also addressed was why former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, who received asylum from Russia and currently lives in Moscow, didn’t spark the domestic privacy debate the authors hoped for.
After introductions, Soldatov began by giving some background on the Russian surveillance apparatus, from the Soviet KGB to the current FSB, and its inherent differences from the European and American models. SORM boxes allow for direct access to communications—while a warrant is required, it can only be shown to those with security clearance (i.e., not the service provider). Interestingly, however, Soldatov said the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin doesn’t have the tech overreach of some other countries that censor domestic Internet access, which is why all of Wikipedia went down rather than one page. He explained that the modern Kremlin model is based largely on “intimidation” rather than purely on technology. For example, they will target and leak an opposition leader’s communications (the leader Soldatov referred to was later assassinated) or pressure the heads of media companies.
Borogan followed this up by saying that there is “room for hope” given that the Russian government seeks to control the flow of information from the top down, when networks run horizontally. Regular citizens can contribute to the dialog, then, as was seen in protests such as those in Moscow in 2011, when people utilized the Internet and social media to disperse information about demonstrations and arrests. This idea came up again during the audience Q&A session when Borogan relayed the story of someone who created multiple easy-to-access subdomains when the LiveJournal of activist Alexey Navalny was blocked; it circumvented the block for all users, even those without tech skills. The authors said it would be impossible for Russia to succeed in fully censoring the Internet. Instead, along with intimidation, the government does things such as pay trolls to support the Kremlin and disrupt activists online.
As for Snowden, he was brought up in both the discussion and audience Q&A that followed. Soldatov said that while they initially hoped that Snowden would inspire a public debate on privacy in Russia, this failed to happen when he fell under government authority. Borogan explained that though Russia has begun to talk about privacy, it’s from the point of creating further opportunities for the government to monitor communications (e.g., forcing Western companies to have servers on Russian soil) under the guise of protecting this information from U.S. intrusion. Where Russia goes from here is yet to be seen.