[#book] The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries
(Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan, 2015)
On the eighth floor of an ordinary-looking building in an otherwise residential district of southwest Moscow, in a room occupied by the Federal Security Service (FSB), is a box the size of a VHS player marked SORM. The Russian government’s front line in the battle for the future of the Internet, SORM is the world’s most intrusive listening device, monitoring e-mails, Internet usage, Skype, and all social networks.
But for every hacker subcontracted by the FSB to interfere with Russia’s antagonists abroad—such as those who, in a massive denial-of-service attack, overwhelmed the entire Internet in neighboring Estonia—there is a radical or an opportunist who is using the web to chip away at the power of the state at home.
Drawing from scores of interviews personally conducted with numerous prominent officials in the Ministry of Communications and web-savvy activists challenging the state, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan peel back the history of advanced surveillance systems in Russia. From research laboratories in Soviet-era labor camps, to the legalization of government monitoring of all telephone and Internet communications in the 1990s, to the present day, their incisive and alarming investigation into the Kremlin’s massive online-surveillance state exposes just how easily a free global exchange can be coerced into becoming a tool of repression and geopolitical warfare. Dissidents, oligarchs, and some of the world’s most dangerous hackers collide in the uniquely Russian virtual world of The Red Web.
The Red Web: Russia and the Internet
The Internet in Russia is a battleground between activists who would use it as a tool of political and cultural freedom and government officials who see it as a powerful instrument of political control, write investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan in their new book The Red Web. For now, the government appears to be winning the battle.
Soldatov and Borogan trace the underlying conflict back to official anxiety in the Soviet era about the hazards of freedom of information. In the 1950s, the first Soviet photocopy machine was physically destroyed at the direction of the government “because it threatened to spread information beyond the control of those who ruled.”
In a chapter devoted to the case of Edward Snowden, the authors express disappointment in Snowden’s unwillingness to comment on Russian surveillance or to engage with Russian journalists. “To us, the silence seemed odd and unpleasant.”
More important, they say that Snowden actually made matters in Russia worse.
“Snowden may not have known or realized it, but his disclosures emboldened those in Russia who wanted more control over the Internet,” they write.
Because the Snowden disclosures were framed not as a categorical challenge to surveillance, but exclusively as an exposure of U.S. and allied practices, they were exploited by the Russian government to legitimize its own preference for “digital sovereignty.”
Snowden provided “cover for something the Kremlin wanted all along– to force Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s services, Gmail and YouTube, to be subject to Russian legislation, which meant providing backdoor access to the Russian security services.”
The Red Web provides a salutary reminder for Western readers that the so-called U.S. “surveillance state” has hardly begun to exercise the possibilities of political control implied in that contemptuous term. For all of its massive collection of private data, the National Security Agency — unlike its Russian counterparts — has not yet interfered in domestic elections, censored private websites, disrupted public gatherings, or gained unrestricted access to domestic communications.