Dictators, the Internet, and Geography

keep-calm-and-get-tha-computers-putinLast week, Putin signed a new law requiring that any companies providing web services in Russia domestically store the data associated with Russian users. Defenders of the Russian regime are arguing that the law is simply intended to protect the data of Russian citizens. Of course, those are the same voices that could argue with straight faces that Gulag barbed wire was a necessary precaution in the face of the eternal threat of bears.

Funny thing: Facebook, Twitter, and any other foreign social media of note do not have servers in Russia, which means that the law just created a legal justification for Putin to order Rozkomnadzor (the Russian telecom regulator that’s roughly equivalent to the FCC) to block foreign social media within the country at the drop of a hat. In combination with the seizure of vkontakte (a popular Russian clone of Facebook) by old friends of the regime, this puts Putin in a decent position to pull the plug on most opposition Internet activity if the political necessity arises.

You can read my take on the strategic nuances of Russian internet censorship over on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage politics blog.

But Russia is not an innovator in the field of what are called “local data server requirements”. Last summer, Vietnam passed a new law that among other things, requires that Vietnamese can only post on domestically owned and operated websites (with the exception that citizens can post on foreign sites such as Twitter or Facebook for the purpose of directing users to content on domestic websites). In addition, domestic companies are required to have their servers physically within the borders of Vietnam.

There are legitimate, if controversial, economic rationales for such requirements. For instance, Australia requires that electronic medical records can only be stored on servers within Australia. Greece took broader action in 2011, requiring that any data “generated and stored” within Greece must be retained on servers within the country. The transnational nature of network transmission and storage has made such laws a tricky affair, and the EU in particular has argued that such actions are incompatible with the principles of its open market.

But while the justification for the Vietnamese law is couched in economic terms, the motivations and effects of it as designed are purely political. With high profile arrests of several bloggers over the last few months, this move by Vietnam is a way to make crackdowns on online speech easier, because it puts the physical hardware within reach of the regime.

That’s the key strategic tension in these authoritarian regimes: banning particular sites only pushes users to other sites in an endless game of whack-a-mole. But a savvy regime can use a variety of tricks to try to get users onto services that when push comes to shove, the regime can take down with the good old fashioned tools of guns and thugs.

Somebody’s Getting Fired: McCain’s Op-Ed and the Power of Names


Having worked in tech support during a very painful period of my life, it’s very difficult for me to not drop some snark about old people and computers right here, but I restrain myself out of both good taste and the fact that my 80 year old grandmother mastered the Internet better than most teenagers. And the easy joke is never the best one anyway. Of course, it’s not like McCain is really the one to blame anyway for this fiasco, as he has an entire team of people whose job descriptions include the paraphrase “catch the clusterfucks before they’re out the door”. Yeah, they didn’t.

In the wake of ol’ Vladimir Vladimirovich’s opinion piece in the New York Times lambasting American policy and such, John McCain decided that a good stunt would be to publish a retort in Russia’s biggest paper. Not a terrible idea, except for the fact that apparently his staff assigned the task of picking the newspaper to the slacker intern whose sole research into the matter was conducted by watching “Spies Like Us”.

See, they published McCain’s article on the website Pravda.ru. This might at face value seem reasonable, if there was one Soviet newspaper that a Westerner could have named during the Cold War, it would have been Pravda. There are several problems though.

First, there was the failure to understand that Pravda has only a fraction of the circulation that it did during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, very few people felt a need to read the official newspaper of the Communist Party. There are at least a few dozen newspapers that would make more sense to publish a nationally aimed op-ed piece in. It is hardly impressive that a sitting American senator lambasted a foreign country without even knowing enough about that country to find out which newspaper the population reads.

But there was a second even more embarrassing failure here. His staff did not even manage to submit the article to the right Pravda. See, there’s a website set up in the late nineties by disgruntled former Pravda reporters. They managed to land the URL pravda.ru at which location they host what can only politely be termed an online tabloid. The actual newspaper is hosted at gazeta-pravda.ru. So on top of failing to understand that no one reads Pravda, the McCain team did not even manage to send it to Pravda. They sent it to a website that makes the New York Post look like the Economist.

An innocent mistake? Here are a selection of headlines from Pravda.ru’s current homepage. They have an English version, which makes the mistake even more egregious:

Physics, a culture of criminality

Putin overshadows blood-hungry, ‘exceptional’ Obama

No Russian feels any respect for Pussy Riot

Homosexual shadow of the Vatican

Why Conservative Americans Admire Putin

Western bankers poised to enslave Russia

McCain believes that God left people his will in America’s national documents

And my personal favorite:

Russia saves the world

You stay classy Russia.

Afghanistan Gets its Own Social Media Summit

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Violence and the Lie

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