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A Russian Gulag for American Social Networks’ Data?

Could Facebook be forced to open new servers in Siberia for its Russian users? Images mixed by author.

Could Facebook be forced to open new servers in Siberia for its Russian users? Images mixed by author.

A Moscow city councilman is trying to resuscitate a government push to expand Russia’s “digital sovereignty.” On April 3, 2014, Alexey Lisovenko published a plea to Duma deputy Sergey Zhelezniak, asking him to pass legislation that would require all online social networks to house users’ personal data on servers located on Russian soil. Lisovenko, an active member of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, cites Edward Snowden’s revelations about American spying as a reason for the move. “Snowden has confirmed,” Lisovenko explains, “that the largest intelligence-gathering corporation there is—the US National Security Agency—is monitoring our social media accounts.”

American snooping, though, is relatively old news. Last June, days before Snowden even arrived in Russia, Zhelezniak—Lisovenko’s addressee—gave a speech in parliament, advocating exactly what the city councilman asks today: relocating servers to sovereign Russian soil.

One thing that distinguishes Lisovenko’s request today is that he also proposes Siberia as the ideal location for large data centers. Indeed, the cold weather and abundant energy resources in eastern Russia potentially make it an ideal place to house millions of dollars of burning-hot computer hardware. Just last year, Facebook opened a new data center in Sweden, south of the Arctic Circle, to exploit precisely these natural advantages.

Lisovenko’s proposal complements Moscow’s long-term (some might say “eternal”) development efforts in Siberia, as well as Russia’s growing effort to halt capital flight. While the data on social networks beamed out of the country into the West isn’t often viewed as a drain on Russia, per se, tying “digital sovereignty” to economic development could make it politically salient for those unmobilized by fears about American spying.

Alexey Lisovenko, 4 June 2013, Moscow, Russia. Facebook photo.

Of course, forcing foreign networks to store users’ data in Russia would also make the information more accessible to the Russian government, which already operates a PRISM-like spying program called “SORM.” In November 2013, the online journal Expert.ru quoted an anonymous source within Russia’s SORM infrastructure, who claimed that the physical remoteness of Facebook’s servers is the only obstacle to mining the website’s archives.

According to Expert.ru’s SORM insider, the Russian government has played an active role in the evolution of Vkontakte, Russia’s most popular social network. Not only does the state monitor the website’s users, the source claims, but it has also insured Vkontakte’s popularity over Facebook by obligating Internet providers to dedicate greater bandwidth to Vkontakte traffic. The government also tolerates widespread copyright violations on Vkontakte—undeniably one of the service’s greatest appeals. (I myself know several Muscovites who maintain Vkontakte accounts solely as a means of storing music “in the cloud.”)

Digital sovereignty didn’t take off last June, but Russian efforts to expand policing of the media (both new and old) haven’t slowed. In fact, tensions in Ukraine have made matters worse. Just yesterday, April 4, 2014, the Duma passed draft legislation that, pending the approval of the upper house and President, will criminalize “Nazi rehabilitation,”* empowering the state to ban journalists from the profession (or even jail them for as many as five years), if they “falsely accuse” the USSR of Nazi-like misdeeds during World War II.

That conflict ended with over two million people inhabiting the Soviet Gulag—mostly in places throughout Siberia. Today, it’s not necessary to stuff the country’s malcontents into trains and cart them off to remote prisons. The government can accomplish far more policing virtually, thanks to the Internet. That said, if Lisovenko gets his way, Siberia might still have a part to play.

* Correction: the original text of this article claimed that the Nazi rehabilitation ban is already law. In fact, the legislation requires further approval by the parliament's two houses and President Putin. While expected, this hasn't happened yet.

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