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Russia calls on US for political equality, but wants special treatment on the web...

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 6, 2014
Summary:
Putin has called for better ties between Russia and the US, but has at the same time put measures in place that could see the likes of Facebook and Twitter banned from the region.

On the 4th of July last year President Putin sent Washington a relatively positive message, in which he expressed “certainty” that the two powerhouses would be

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able to get on and reach solutions “regardless of the fact that not all approaches of the sides concur”. Very diplomatic indeed - but as we have seen, a lot can happen in a year on the international political stage. Since then Russia has been criticised for its involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine, which led to it annexing the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, and has also faced a human rights backlash over its treatment of gay people. And so, this year's Independence Day message to the American President was somewhat downbeat, with Putin calling for political equality and a recognition that Russia holds its own fair share of global power. A message from the Kremlin stated:

The head of the Russian state expressed hope that ... ties between the two countries will develop successfully on the basis of pragmatism and equality despite difficulties and disagreements.

Vladimir Putin also highlighted that Russia and the United States, as countries carrying exceptional responsibility for safeguarding international stability and security, should cooperate not only in the interests of their own nations but also the whole world.

With tensions running high between the two nations, this is probably as diplomatic a message as anyone could hope for. However, Putin's call for political equality coincidentally comes at the same time that Russia is asking for – or shall we say ensuring – its own special treatment on the internet. It has emerged in the past couple of days that Russia's parliament has passed a law to force internet sites that store personal data of Russian citizens to do so within the borders of the country.

Essentially what this could mean is that as of 2016 any global internet giant that wants to maintain any sort of presence in Russia, will have to do so by making use of data centres within the country to store data locally. The law is being touted by Russian officials as an important step in maintaining data protection for citizens, whilst experts and analysts are pegging it as an attack on the ever growing presence of social networks. And as we all know, social networks have proven particularly challenging for countries that have a history of maintaining a certain degree of censorship.

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This latest bit of legislation adds to other new rules that require blogs that get more than 3,000 daily visits (which will be the case for most blogs that hold any sort of credibility) to register with the communications regulator, which can shut down a site without a court order. Reuters spoke to Anton Nossik, an internet expert, that said that the wave of regulation is an attempt to push back on American sites that encourage free speech and similar-minded people connecting with each other. He said:

The aim of this law is to create ... (another) quasi-legal pretext to close Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all other services.

"The ultimate goal is to shut mouths, enforce censorship in the country and shape a situation where internet business would not be able to exist and function properly.

The news also follows a recent meeting between a senior Twitter executive and the head of Russia's communications watchdog, after the social network was asked to block some unspecified Twitter accounts. However, a Twitter spokesperson later said it had not agreed to block anything in Russia. Although the new bill still has to be approved by the upper chamber and President Putin before it comes into law, when introducing it to Parliament, MP Vadim Denign made it clear that it was a clear push back against the US internet giants. He said:

Most Russians don't want their data to leave Russia for the United States, where it can be hacked and given to criminals. Our entire lives are stored over there.

Verdict

  • Some will look at this story and recognise similarities between Russia's sentiment and the data protection policies coming out of the EU, which has forced a number of US enterprise software-as-a-service companies to build data centres in-country in order to cater to desires to keep data in the region. As Infor CEO Charles Phillips recently told me, this isn't something companies want to be doing, but if powerhouses like the UK and Germany want them, then they will build them. However, no-one is forcing the likes of Salesforce to build data centres across Europe and there most certainly has been no threat from regulators to block these companies. The demand is coming from business and companies are responding, but ultimately it is a choice. Worryingly, this isn't the case in Russia.
  • Interestingly, Putin this week said that the US was trying to “contain” Russia, which was a term often used during the Cold War era. However, if you look at what Russia is doing with regards to the internet, they are trying to contain themselves. And as we all know, the internet isn't something that is easily contained. But given its power and the ease at which it allows citizens to collectively criticise governments (which I'm sure is what the Kremlin is actually worried about), it's no wonder that governments such as Russia are doing what they can to control it. I'm sure such events as the Arab Spring, where social networks played a prime role, are centre and front of Putin's mind.
  • However, if Russia really does want to censor and contain the internet it has a mammoth challenge on its hand. As we have seen elsewhere, it is easier said than done. Thankfully.
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