How Western tech companies are helping Russia censor the Internet

A man walks past an ad at an Internet devices shop in St. Petersburg in April 2019. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
A man walks past an ad at an Internet devices shop in St. Petersburg in April 2019. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

In early December, Russian censors scored an unexpected success: Internet users all over the country reported that Tor, an encryption software that allows users to bypass online government controls, was going offline.

The Russian security services have been trying to neutralize Tor for years. They view it as the West’s censorship circumvention tool of choice. Its creation was sponsored by the International Broadcasting Bureau, a U.S. agency that provides technical support to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The irony, though, is that Russian state scored this victory over freedom of information with the help of Western companies.

Russia calls its system for controlling online discourse the “sovereign Internet.” The nationwide system, whose control center is located in Moscow, is designed to suppress traffic the Kremlin doesn’t like. It can isolate specified sections of the Web or cut off entire regions of the country from the Internet in case of protests or unrest. In many ways, the effectiveness of the system attests to the skill of the Russian engineers who designed, tested and implemented it in the course of just two years, starting in 2019.

Despite its name, though, the system depends to a crucial extent on foreign technology. Its control center, in a lavishly renovated 19th-century red-brick building on the Moscow River, is powered by 30 servers from Chinese-owned Lenovo and 30 more from U.S. company Super Micro Computer. But that is mere hardware that provides the system with its computing power. Even more important is the deep packet inspection (DPI) software that allows Russian censors to suppress Tor traffic or to slow down Twitter across the country, as they did earlier this year.

(We reached out for comment from the companies mentioned in this article. Only Super Micro responded: “Supermicro complies with applicable laws and regulations, and our policies are consistent with international principles of human rights,” said a company representative in an email. “We act appropriately to ensure this is the case.”)

On the censors’ orders, every Russian Internet service has to install a package of surveillance technology provided by the Israeli firm Silicom Ltd. In September, Russian human rights activists called out Silicom for the company’s role in the creation of the Sovereign Internet, but the company has made no response.

Many experts long assumed that modern-day dictatorships would rely on each other’s help in the realm of online surveillance. This assumption was, to some extent, based on a historical analogy — the legacy of the Cold War era’s Soviet and Chinese arms sales to other despotic regimes. This thinking viewed surveillance and censorship tech as modern-day weapons — so it seemed only logical that shipments of tanks and Kalashnikovs to these regimes would be supplemented by software and equipment for spying on dissidents, activists and journalists.

But that’s not how things have turned out. Of the tech used by Russian censors in the sovereign Internet system, only some of the hardware is supplied by the Chinese. The company Lenovo originated in China, but Lenovo’s operational HQ is in Morrisville, N.C. It could be described more accurately as a Sino-American multinational. Super Micro’s headquarters is in San Jose, Calif. DPI technology is itself a Western invention.

On Dec. 6, Russia’s Internet censors purchased several Internet traffic analysis solutions developed by IXIA, which is part of Keysight Technologies, another U.S. company based in Santa Rosa, Calif.

These days, dictatorships are too smart to shut themselves off from Western technology even if they proclaim digital sovereignty as their national goal. When it comes to surveillance and censorship, they need to get things done — they can’t be too fussy about who is supplying the tools. Even Saudi Arabia had apparently little compunction about using surveillance software from the Israeli company NSO Group. (The company later canceled its contract with the Saudis amid adverse publicity.)

But this also means that even as the dictatorships are busy erecting fences, including online, something can be done from outside to slow down their progress in suppressing human and political rights in their countries.

The tech companies should not be left on their own when it comes to making decisions about whether they should get into bed with these regimes. Google correctly decided to terminate its controversial program of designing a search engine that would be compatible with China’s censorship regime. But there are other lower-profile companies that seem to have few such scruples.

There are lots of experts, journalists and human rights organizations who are fully capable of explaining what can be done with the technology when it is used by the dark side. The companies cannot go on helping authoritarian regimes while claiming ignorance about the situation in those countries.

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan are co-authors of “The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.”

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