Russia's actions in Ukraine have distracted the world from the Kremlin's invasion of the Internet. Now, as the world is consumed by other Putin-related headlines, Russia's Internet freedom is quickly slipping away. This is not just a technology story. Putin's attitude toward the web sheds further light on his isolationism and his fear of domestic critics. The current Internet crackdown also suggests that Putin, despite high approval ratings, may not be as secure as he appears. Generally speaking, confident leaders do not feel seriously threatened by social media.

Until recently, Russia's Internet was relatively free, compared to newspapers and television. Russia, at least thus far, has not followed the Chinese model of Internet censorship. There is no "Great Firewall of Russia" to block content from abroad. Nor are there countless banned keywords and armies of human censors to delete sensitive content. Russians could go online and complain about corruption, injustice, and even Putin himself, and the Kremlin wouldn't crack down because authorities didn't view the Web as a political threat. 

Now Russia is reportedly considering measures to isolate Russia from the global Internet, apparently to defend the country from aggressive acts by the West. "It's about getting ready for possible cut-offs as countries that regulate the Web may act unpredictably," Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Bloomberg. This defensive stance is in keeping with Putin's statement earlier this year, when he referred to the Internet as a "CIA project."

The Kremlin's crackdown on the Internet began as a response to domestic dissent. In late 2011 and again in early 2012, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest electoral fraud and the Putin regime. Social media played a key role in organizing those protests, and the blogger Alexey Navalny emerged as one of the leaders of the opposition movement. (In the photo above, an activist protests the Russian court's treatment of Navalny during his controversial embezzlement case.) Since those demonstrations, some the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Internet freedom has been increasingly under threat. According to Freedom House, from January 2012 to February 2013, the number of websites flagged for containing extremist material and blocked by the Ministry of Justice increased by around 60 percent.

In 2012, Russia enacted a law allowing for the blocking of certain websites without judicial oversight. The law supposedly protects children and controls other harmful content but has been widely viewed as an attempt to clamp down on free speech. According to one study, in the year that followed, more than 83,000 websites were put on an Internet blacklist, and the vast majority was blocked "without a valid reason." Earlier this year Navalny, who has faced all kinds of legal troubles in Russia, was placed under house arrest and barred from using the Internet.

Russia and China have another essential difference: Chinese censorship has been around for a long time. Netizens have years of experience in using proxy servers and writing in code to outwit automatic filters. Russia, on the other hand, is poised to embark on the bold experiment of trying to extinguish a freedom that people once enjoyed. The Russian Web has been subject to a dizzying array of new restrictions. One law required bloggers with over 3,000 daily readers to register with the government. People must show identification before using public Wi-Fi. Starting in 2016, websites will have to store Russian citizens' personal data on Russia-based servers. Some see this move as prelude to banning Twitter and Facebook, which could be blocked in Russia if they fail to comply.

The Internet crackdown is part of a larger attempt to rein in the media. Oleg Kashin, a well-known blogger and journalist, told me, "Putin began with television, then he moved on to newspapers; after [the 2011 protest at] Bolotnaya he purged whatever was left of the independent media." Kashin adds that now only social networks remain, but even that pool is getting smaller. VKontakte, Russia's version of Facebook, has been essentially taken over by Kremlin allies. Kashin said, "Facebook and Twitter are the only ones they have no control over. It is just a matter of time before they are dealt with as well."

Reining in the web has been a way for the Kremlin to help ensure that alternative voices don't undermine the official narrative about Ukraine featured on state-controlled television. As we've seen in China, however, censorship will not be completely effective. Some Russians will also find ways to evade state controls. The number of Russians using Tor, software that helps users protect themselves from surveillance, has multiplied considerably since last year. Elia Kabanov, the author of the Moscow-based blog Metkere, told me, "I'm looking forward to new censorship laws and I'm sure we'll find a way to ignore them."

This is not to say that millions of Russians are scrambling to find alternatives to state propaganda. They're not. There is no denying that Putin enjoys considerable support. On Sunday, thousands of Russians protested the Kremlin's position on Ukraine, a courageous act considering the crackdown on dissent, but that does not mean there is a widespread appetite for protest. There is also no question that Russia's Internet opposition has taken a serious hit.

But all of these factors could change, and they could change fast. Authoritarian leaders may seem to be worried about freedom of speech, but they are far more concerned about freedom of assembly. It's hardly a coincidence that Russia's Internet crackdown was sparked by street demonstrations. Furthermore, those protests were largely a surprise. Even a year earlier, anyone suggesting that demonstrations were on the horizon would have been widely mocked. In Russia's current political climate, predicting mass protests may seem equally naive.

Yet while the Internet alone will not bring Russians into the streets, an economic crisis could. In such an event social media would probably play an important role. Putin seems to understand this. Furthermore, destabilizing protest movements sometimes appear to come out of the blue. In Moscow, the government survived protests. In Kiev, the government did not.

Earlier this year, before his house arrest, Navalny taunted Russian authorities with his comments on Ukraine. He wrote on his blog: "Yanukovych's mafia government fell precisely because there were enough people in Kiev willing to stand patiently in the cold in the streets as long as they had to without being afraid of detention and arrests; can't detain them all. Do such people exist in Moscow? That is a question only you and I can answer."

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