Russia’s homegrown Web
(Le Monde Diplomatique) The Ukrainian government blocked access to a number of Russian online services this May, including search engine Yandex and Facebook equivalent VKontakte. Kiev accuses these services, widely used in Ukraine, of sharing data with Russian intelligence, especially the personal data of soldiers fighting separatists in the Donbass region. This measure stopped millions from accessing their favourite sites, and showed the Ukrainian government’s determination to escape the digital influence Russia still has over most of the former Soviet Union.
Russia is one of the few countries to have a nearly complete ecosystem of platforms and services independent from Silicon Valley, established by Russians and governed by Russian law. Much of the world uses Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA) without access to credible local alternatives, but Russians and their near neighbours can choose between the US giants and Runet — the Russophone Internet and its services. Yandex is twice as popular as Google in Russia, while VKontakte is by far its most frequently visited site.
This is a major asset for Russia: its position on Web governance has strengthened considerably since Edward Snowden’s revelations on the US National Security Agency’s surveillance practices. In cyberspace as elsewhere, Russia treats sovereignty as the first priority in international relations, making it clear that it will do anything to prevent interference and espionage, especially by the US. Having its own Web infrastructure has allowed Russia to pass strong legislation, such as a 2015 law that requires digital platforms to store the personal data of Russian citizens on Russian soil, officially to shield it from snooping by the US. (Facebook and Twitter are required to have theirs near Moscow.) Russia has already blocked access to the business networking service LinkedIn for breaking this rule.