/ Cory Doctorow / 7 am Sat, Jul 5 2014
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  • Kremlin offers Silicon Valley a Russian Internet with Chinese characteristics

    Kremlin offers Silicon Valley a Russian Internet with Chinese characteristics

    A new Russian law requires companies to store Russians' data within Russia's borders, out of reach of the NSA, and in reach of Russia's own secret police. It's China all over again, writes Cory Doctorow.

    It's the latest development in the tick-tock of two stories: the reactions of the world's governments to the Snowden revelations that the NSA has their entire populations (and leaders) under deep surveillance; and Russia's steady march to a totalitarian Internet that's like Iran's halal Internet, with Putin-authoritarian characteristics.

    The Russian law uses copyright enforcement as part of its cover -- something we've seen before, as when Russian cops started seizing the computers of independent newspapers under the rubric of hunting for pirated software, incidentally availing themselves of details of the journalists' confidential sources and notes -- and arrogates to the state the right to issue censorship and disconnection orders for alleged infringement.

    The new regime puts Russia in a similar position to China: a huge market for Internet users, with a massive censorship system that can block noncompliant foreign Internet services. In China, this has resulted in companies like Yahoo and Google locating their servers within the grasp of Chinese spies (who used them to hack both the American Internet companies and spy on internal dissidents, prompting Google to eventually leave China), as the only way to get access to the market and compete with homegrown, regime-friendly services.

    In the coming months, the major Internet companies will have to decide whether to abandon the Russian market to local competitors, or to locate data-centers on Russian soil and become a de facto instrument of Russia's internal system for spying on and neutralizing the political opposition to the country's authoritarian regime.

    Complicating this is the Chinese experience: companies that sold out to China found that the Politburo rewarded their "flexibility" by milking them of their trade secrets and expertise, then went ahead and tipped the scales in favor of Chinese companies whose owners were crony-chummy with China's political elite.

    Any selling out for access to the Russian Internet market will likely head down the same road -- a few years' worth of complicity in attacks on gay rights activists, a few years' worth of helping to imprison people who use curse words (but only if they're the sort of people the Kremlin needs an excuse to jail) -- only to find your company eventually given the boot under one of the same Kafkaesque excuses, its servers seized, and a locally run business like Yandex or Vkontakte getting your market-share.

    Speaking of Vkontakte -- the "Russian Facebook" -- remember that the site's founder Pavel Durov was apparently forced to sell his stake in the company earlier this year, after taking part in anti-Putin rallies. The new owner is a Kremlin-affiliated oligarch whose fortune was kickstarted by fire-sale-priced access to media assets seized from another oligarch who'd fallen out of Kremlin-favor.

    In its way, this is a perfect microcosm for the ideological bankruptcy of contemporary business ethics: companies chasing short-term profits through access to "emerging" markets get into favor by participating in surveillance and censorship, by helping the state spy on, imprison and torture their users, by helping to control pro-democracy movements by shaping the public perception of media events -- then, after a few years, they're tossed out anyway.

    I wish I was more hopeful about this, but I fear that all the lessons from Silicon Valley's Chinese experience will be deliberately forgotten in the pursuit of Russian users.

    -Cory Doctorow

    (Images: Kremlin, Harry Popoff, CC-BY; Vladimir Putin Red Square - That's My Boy!! Хорошо, молодец!!!, IoSonoUnaFotoCamera, CC-BY-SA)


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    Notable Replies

    1. Kimmo says:

      Our biggest problem globally is general disenfranchisement and a lack of democracy and accountability from our alleged representatives. This is the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of even being able to start seriously tackling any one of our rapidly impending existential crises.

      This tragic state of affairs is facilitated by this stuff called money, which in its current form is pretty much just essence of scam.

      It's pretty sad to think the that almost our entire species is enslaved by this stuff, except for those doing the enslaving, and it's fucking imaginary.

      Isn't it about time we got our shit together and came up with something clever? Surely we can crowdsource an end-run around the scum... if we can get enough folks on board, we could just, sidestep half of this... bullshit.

      In fact, I know someone who has the germ of an idea.

      Over to you, @William_Holz.

    2. Yep, those Russians are suffering from some serious fatalism. If only we could inject them with some American exceptionalism or British phlegmatism, they'd all get better!

      In the distant future, when armchair anthropology becomes the queen of all sciences, the last remnants of our dying civilization will build a monument to cultural relativism, and on the pedestal these words appear: "Culture is everything". Of course, by that point, earthlings will have long been enslaved by the sentient crab people, so that will be of little consolation.

    3. Ygret says:

      Perhaps I wasn't clear enough. I was trying to talk about cultural history. What have the Russian people been subject to? What do they see as acceptable given what they've been subject to? Tsarist Russia with its secret police and gulags. The "communist" era with its mass executions, secret police and overt militarism. The current crony capitalist era secret police, overt social and political control, etc. Societies become inured to this sort of stuff.

      That's why I'm so disturbed by what's been going on in the US for the past few decades. We are beginning to accept overt corruption, cronyism, lemon socialism, torture, mass surveillance, etc. Once this corruption becomes ingrained in our culture we're in seriously trouble. Just like the Russians.

    4. Quite true. Modern Russia seems to be the dream state of US' far right conservative movement.

    5. Ygret says:

      I agree, but I still maintain that the historical circumstances, what the people have experienced and come to expect, matters greatly. The furor and noise over Snowden's revelations would barely receive mention in Russia. Its just assumed that Putin surveills the Russian citizenry. The one seriously embarrassing moment for Snowden was when he asked Putin if he spies on the Russian people as if he would receive an honest answer. There is no 4th amendment to break in Russia. Cultural norms matter.

      And while its true, as far as it goes, that dissidents facilitated the revolution in Russia, the fact that they set up gulags and essentially a police state was possible because that's basically what existed before the revolution. If a government set up gulags and started mass arresting dissidents in the US there would be armed insurrectionists in the streets, and you'd find a lot of the military going awol against the government. There's only so much they can get away with at any given time, and that is based on cultural historical norms. You could argue that's what they did to Occupy Wall Street and you'd be partially right. But first of all it wasn't a mass movement. And instead of throwing the protesters in prison for decades, disappearing the leaders, etc., those arrested are all walking free at this point. Different nation, different history, different norms.

      Of course those norms can change. Just look at what Obama has gotten away with coming after Bush/Cheney. Bush/Cheney was a coup that stood much of the political norms of the US on their head, and there were massive protests and a lot of unrest during that period. That's what was so pernicious about what Obama did in '08. Instead of reforming and returning us to our historical norms as he promised he instead continued and expanded on the post-constitutional era Bush ushered in, while simultaneously deflating the unrest that propelled him into office. History will not look kindly on him. In fact its arguable that Obama has broken more of the constitution that Bush/Cheney did. When Bush's cronies got into financial trouble they went to jail (Enron). Obama not only let them off with no prosecutions but rewarded them with unlimited Fed money. Bush claimed the right to indefinitely detain American citizens. Obama claims the right to assassinate us (not on American soil). Why not on American soil? They are ratcheting us towards the same place the Russians are in relation to their government, and the only thing that might stop them is our outrage at what's being taken away from us.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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