Can Russian authorities slow down Facebook and Google?

March 16, 2017 Oleg Yegorov, RBTH
Russian media reported that the country’s Parliament might adopt legislation that would allow the government to slow down user access to certain Internet sites.
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Some specialists believe the new method for regulating the Internet will primarily affect popular foreign sites and services such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. Source: Reuters

Russian authorities might utilize a new method to punish web sites that violate legislation, reported the business newspaper, Vedomosti, citing anonymous sources in Internet companies and state agencies. The courts could allow authorities to slow down access to certain Internet sites, making them very inconvenient for users.

Vedomosti’s source said the legislation will be introduced in the spring by the Federal Anti-monopoly Service (FAS) and Roskomnadzor, a structure that controls Internet security in Russia. The agencies declined to comment on Vedomosti’s report.

Alexei Volin, deputy minister of the Communications Ministry dismissed the report, calling it "nonsense," adding that, "this is technically impossible." Not everyone agreed with him, however.

Decelerate the Internet?

Technology experts said that although it’s difficult to slow down websites, it is possible. The magazine Republic wrote that a DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) is needed to allow providers to block a part of the user queries or responses from the server of the decelerated site. As a result, the systems will have to "re-ask" the users, and thus it will take a few minutes for the page to be downloaded, and not a few seconds.

This technology is expensive and "special and very advanced equipment will have to be installed and it costs billions of dollars," said Karen Kazaryan, chief analyst at the Russian Association of Electronic Communications, reported Kommersant.

Undesirable sites

Some specialists believe the new method for regulating the Internet will primarily affect popular foreign sites and services such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. These services operate in Russia but do not comply with decisions by local courts, arguing that they’re only bound by the laws of the countries where they’re registered.

It’s risky to fully block popular sites, however, because that can generate mass indignation. Making them inconvenient for users, without formal blockage, is an effective way to put pressure on them.

"Deceleration is basically disconnection. This way the officials want to show to their superiors that everything is controlled, including foreign sites," said Maxim Kornev, docent at the Television, Radio and Internet Technologies Department at the Russian State University for the Humanities.

If using foreign sites becomes inconvenient, the user will chose a Russian equivalent, meaning that this initiative is a sort of government attempt to protect domestic companies. "You can create an inconvenient scenario for the user so that he will alter his habits and switch to a Russian service," entrepreneur and developer Sergei Ryzhikov told Business FM radio.

Doubtful initiative

Many experts doubt the system will be worth the money spent. In an interview with Parlamentskaya Gazeta daily, the presidential advisor on internet technologies, German Klimenko, said that users would learn how to bypass the web site deceleration system the same way they now bypass full blockage: with the help of anonymizers and VPN servers. "If there are still people who don't know how to use these devices, they will after access is slowed down," Klimenko predicted.

Maxim Kornev also believes the system will be ineffective. "Imagine that the government quarrels with, for example, German car producers and forces owners of those cars to drive at a speed of 20 mph or switch to Russian cars. What will happen? The owners of German cars will just drive around police posts and then drive as they did before."

In this case "driving around police posts" means bypassing restrictions that exist on the Russian Internet. "The Internet functions in a way that makes it difficult to introduce universal restrictions that cannot be bypassed," Kornev concluded.

Read more: VKontakte is 10 years old: What’s the secret of the ‘Russian Facebook’?

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