Sources at Google have also confirmed to The Insider that they consider the blocking of YouTube in Russia within the next year highly likely.
According to Darbinyan, another aspect that many fear is the transition to totalitarian practices involving mass prosecution of users with criminal or administrative penalties:
“There have been thousands of cases involving army discreditation and fake news charges, but they have not yet reached a mass scale. Nevertheless, the utilization of artificial intelligence systems in this context is an alarming trend. Examples of such systems are ‘Oculus’ and ‘Vepr,’ which were introduced earlier this year. These systems are designed to automatically search for prohibited content, posing significant risks.”
One of the most concerning aspects is what lies ahead: whether such a system will begin making legally significant decisions, such as automatically generating protocols for administrative offenses, speculates Darbinyan. This practice has already been tested during the pandemic in Moscow, where fines were issued automatically without the need for a protocol based on facial recognition technology, the expert adds.
Currently, these systems can raise red flags and send information to law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal cases, he further explains, noting that this situation significantly affects self-censorship. Users’ freedom of speech and self-expression is severely restricted.
“We can see these trends intensifying and potentially leading to swift changes in legislation to allow these systems to go further and make legally significant decisions.”
According to another anonymous expert, “the Kremlin failed to shut down the internet, so they resorted to the old approach of ‘shutting down’ users en masse for likes and comments.”
Given the predictions of tightened controls in the Russian segment of the internet, experts have advised using various services to bypass censorship. Shkittin recommended using the VPN Generator service, created by the Internet Protection Society (OZI) in collaboration with the IEDN Institute, as a means to circumvent blocks.
Darbinyan also reminded users about the Censor Tracker plugin from Roskomsvoboda, which allows bypassing restrictions and warns users if the website they are about to visit is listed as an organizer of information distribution, capable of collecting and transmitting user data to law enforcement agencies.
“Transparent Internet” – have your passport ready
By the end of the year, Russia plans to launch a pilot project for a secure and “absolutely transparent” internet accessible only to Russian citizens using a personal identifier obtained through registration with a passport, according to Vedomosti citing Andrey Svintsov, a deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, Information Technologies, and Communications. Access to this network will not be possible from “anonymous devices.” This will allow security services to easily identify the account holders. However, according to the deputy, the “unprotected internet” will also remain, but users on that network will be personally responsible for their personal data and other security matters. However, the deputy clarified to MK that the pilot project was planned to be conducted “within a large company.” Previously, in early June, Svintsov discussed this idea on the Govorit Moskva [Moscow Speaks] radio station.
According to Shkittin, the reference to a “large company,” is likely to mean a major internet service provider such as Rostelecom. It would be strange to test such a system within a large company that already has an intranet, the expert believes.
“Most likely, they are talking about developing internet access with user identification through ‘Gosuslugi’ [government services portal]. They haven’t come up with anything new, really. Perhaps the telecom operator will offer its customers the choice between using the secure mode or the regular mode. I assume there will also be propaganda promoting the secure internet as being ‘more reliable’ and so on, while presenting the regular internet as something dreadful.”
The expert also believes that this testing period can be used for psychological preparation of users, getting them accustomed to the need for authentication: “In reality, there has been no anonymity on the internet for a long time—you can already track a person through their IP and device data. So, this project is more about strengthening psychological control: by authenticating, the user will not just assume that they can be identified if something happens, but they will already know for sure that any actions they take are visible. I think this will have a very strong psychological impact on the population and will deter people from engaging in any, let’s say, unlawful actions from the state’s point of view.”
Furthermore, in theory, the authorities can introduce a biometric verification system that allows authentication based on biometric data, the expert suggests. He notes that technically, after authentication, the user will not enter a different internet but rather will end up in a different section of it. Most likely, this section will be limited to trusted “whitelisted” resources. Such a scheme is easier than blacklisting millions of undesirable websites, explained Shkittin. “Nevertheless, this is still not a sovereign internet: structurally, the internet will not change. It will simply be a heavily regulated part of it.”
Colleague of Deputy Svintsov, Alexander Khinshtein, stated in early June that he was not aware of such initiatives: “I don’t support hype for the sake of hype. I am not aware of such initiatives […] Much is yet to come, but not accessing the internet based on passports (at least in the foreseeable future).” He also mentioned that it is only possible to remove all negative content from internet resources by authorizing users through passports. In conditions where users access the web anonymously, law enforcement agencies should get involved.
Maksut Shadayev, Minister of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media, also insists that the authorities have not been discussing mandatory identification of internet users through passports: “I can guarantee that everything will remain as it is.”
“Humanity is losing the internet”
All countries are attempting to regulate the internet, experts say. There is no complete freedom anywhere, Shkittin emphasizes. Darbinyan also mentions internet censorship worldwide, saying that even countries in the European Union resort to blocking various resources: “For instance, the Baltic countries not only block websites related to Russian propaganda but sometimes indiscriminately block everything without proper assessment. While this issue is most strongly felt in countries with authoritarian regimes, Iran has more similarities with China and Turkmenistan than with the Baltic countries or Latin America. Nevertheless, the problem undeniably exists. Humanity is gradually losing the internet as a unified global platform accessible from all corners of the world due to the implementation of various restrictions.”
Furthermore, Darbinyan reminds about the proposal from European Parliamentarians to ban end-to-end encryption, which could affect a significant number of resources, such as messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal. Shkittin notes that every country, even the most democratic one, has made attempts to restrict numerous aspects of the internet:
“Some countries ban torrent downloads, others block Russian domains, and in certain places, internet access is temporarily suspended during times of unrest. When the internet first emerged, it was created by well-intentioned individuals for the benefit of all, but as it expanded, it became apparent that everyone has their own notions of freedom, rights, and possibilities.”