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.