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As Edward Snowden sits in a Moscow airport, Russian lawmakers, citing his revelations of widespread electronic snooping by American intelligence agencies, are discussing steps to curb US access to Russian Internet data. One of the stricter proposed measures to emerge from the international political fallout over PRISM, the NSA's far-reaching electronic surveillance program, is a proposal to require foreign Internet services to set up servers in Russia. But the real goal of such legislation, critics say, may in fact be to enable greater Russian surveillance and control over Internet services—especially the social networks that have been instrumental in the mass protest movement.
In late June, State Duma deputy speaker Sergei Zheleznyak, an influential member of the ruling United Russia party who has recently authored several controversial laws, said the parliament should pass “digital sovereignty” legislation that would require servers holding Russian users' personal information to be located in Russia. According to this logic, companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter would have to establish local servers or lose access to the country's growing Internet market, which has previously been reported to have the most engaged social networking audience in the world.
Protecting the information of citizens and the government is only possible, Zheleznyak wrote in an article in the magazine Ekonomika i Zhizn, if servers with such information are located in Russia “so that various spies, intelligence services and swindlers can't make use of the difference in legislative approaches and not answer the questions that our investigators and court system have.”
Meanwhile, Federation Council senator Ruslan Gattarov, also of United Russia, is starting a working group to investigate US intelligence agencies' access to the personal information of Russian users, a task for which he said he had invited Snowden’s assistance. According to Gattarov, the working group aims to establish an international agency to monitor the storage of user information, as well as to lobby for transferring the maintenance of the Internet from the US-based ICANN to an international organization.
In addition, United Russia State Duma deputy Ilya Kostunov has called on the government and military to keep their members from sending official information through foreign Internet services, and to prosecute those who do for treason.
Lawmakers have plenty of fuel for such rhetoric: Snowden's disclosures have been widely covered in Russia, including the revelation that the NSA intercepted top-secret communications by then-president Dmitry Medvedev at the 2009 G20 summit in London. More recently, Russian media covered the Brazilian newspaper O Globo's report, based on documents leaked by Snowden, that the NSA had listened to Internet and phone conversations in Russia, as well as other countries.
Experts agree, though, that a law mandating servers on Russian soil would be difficult to fulfill. In written comments to The Nation, the Russian Association of Electronic Communications called such a requirement “oftentimes technically unfeasible” due to the spread of cloud computing technology and “entirely incorrect” if applied to anything but government Internet services.
According to Yevgeny Yeryomchenko, an analyst who runs Neogeography.ru, Russia doesn't have the necessary broadband data channels, data centers and skilled, English-speaking personnel to facilitate the establishment of servers for widely used Internet services here. Nonetheless, the premise of the law is justified and points to a larger problem that needs to be addressed, he said.
“This legislation and the internationalization of Internet are both steps that express the lack of trust in the American IT business,” Yeryomchenko told The Nation.
Others doubt the stated intentions of the digital sovereignty legislation, however. According to Andrei Soldatov, editor of the site Agentura.ru and a leading commentator on Internet security issues, the proposal is an excuse to increase government control and surveillance of the Internet—not for monitoring foreign communications, but rather internal dissent.
Already, Russian security agencies' access to Internet traffic is vast: As part of the long-running System for Operational Investigative Activities, known by its Russian acronym SORM, surveillance equipment has been installed by all internet service providers and mobile and landline network operators, allowing several agencies to directly monitor communications, Wired and other publications have reported.
“The logical next step is obvious: ground global services on Russian territory, put them under Russian jurisdiction, including in the sphere of operational investigative activities,” Soldatov wrote in a Russian Forbes article.
Read Chase Madar on The Passion of Edward Snowden.