Russian Government Intensifies Online Censorship Ahead of Presidential Election

by Shealeigh

According to a March 15th report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Russian government has introduced strict laws aimed at tightening its grip on the internet by outlawing VPN promotion and increasing censorship of Western social media. These policies come in the wake of Russia’s 2024 presidential election and have raised fears of a rise in digital censorship, drawing parallels to China’s approach to controlling the internet.

Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has progressively increased censorship on Western social media platforms and thousands of websites, ostensibly to safeguard its digital space from external influences. However, this crackdown inadvertently led to a surge in VPN usage among citizens seeking to bypass these restrictions. To strengthen control, Roskomnadzor, the Russian media regulator, adopted blocking techniques similar to those employed by China. For example, on February 27, several permitted platforms like YouTube and WhatsApp suddenly became inaccessible, while banned platforms such as Facebook and Instagram briefly became accessible without the need for VPNs.

RSF sheds light on the Kremlin’s deliberate maneuvers to throttle the flow of information in Russia, particularly in the lead-up to the presidential election. It unveils the intricate workings of online censorship, showcasing strategies ranging from prosecuting VPN-related content to deploying blocking techniques modeled after those used by the Chinese government.

A notable example is the recent enactment of laws criminalizing VPN marketing and related information, underscoring the Russian government’s steadfast resolve to tighten its grip on internet freedom. This legislative tactic mirrors a broader trend observed in authoritarian regimes worldwide, where legal frameworks are wielded to silence dissent and mold digital narratives for political gain.

Moreover, the passage of a new bill by the Duma, Russia’s lower parliament, aims at Russian citizens and companies by prohibiting them from advertising on websites and media     

outlets labeled as “foreign agents.” The bill also extends its reach to forbid advertising information resources associated with foreign agencies. What few independent journalistic voices remain in Russia have seen their YouTube channels closed down.

Through initiatives such as deploying mirror sites (Operation Collateral Freedom), RSF ensures that vital information remains accessible to individuals within Russia despite governmental attempts to suppress it. In this regard, RSF is at the forefront of combating censorship and promoting press freedom globally.

Their proactive approach not only works to circumvent censorship but also underscores the resilience of civil society in the face of authoritarian repression. By leveraging technology to uphold the principles of democracy, RSF and similar organizations demonstrate that the fight for freedom of expression transcends borders and empowers individuals to access unbiased information, fostering a more informed and resilient society.

Corporate media coverage of this story has been rather limited, with only a few major outlets providing reports. The New York Times covered the story in early March, and Yahoo News reported on the upcoming legislative changes in February. However, there has been little coverage beyond these initial reports, and neither source addressed the recent bill prohibiting Russian citizens from engaging in financial interactions with “foreign agents.” 

This lack of extensive coverage raises concerns about the accessibility of information regarding significant legislative developments in Russia. Without broader media attention, important aspects of these measures and their implications may remain overlooked or underreported, potentially hindering public understanding of key governance and civil liberties issues.

Source: RSF, “Kremlin Steps up Online Censorship in Order to Silence Last Opposition Voices Ahead of Presidential Election,” Reporters Without Borders, March 15, 2024.

Student Researcher: Colton Boone (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluators: Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)