On the morning of Sunday March 10, thousands of people gathered in the center of Moscow to protest proposed new legislation cracking down on Internet freedom. They waved placards saying “Save the Internet, Save Russia,” “Isolation—It’s Death,” and “NO to Digital Enslaving.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who was watching the protests on his TV, was unpleasantly surprised. “One of the speakers at the rally claimed that the Kremlin wanted to press a button and switch the Internet off,” he told the Russian wire agency Interfax. “It is absolutely wrong! Why aren’t they concerned that somebody on the other side of the Atlantic will press this button?”
Peskov was echoing official propaganda, which claims that the new legislation is essential to stop the United States from cutting Russia off from the Internet. But the protesters have good reason to believe that it is the Kremlin, not some Western conspiracy, that is endangering their Internet access.
In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it a crime to publish “fake news” or “disrespect of the authorities” on social media. Another proposed bill on “digital sovereignty” aims to provide the Kremlin with the ability to cut off Russia, or a particular Russian region, from the global Internet. The two bills deal with different things—content and infrastructure—but they both have the same goal, one that Putin has wanted to achieve for two decades: depriving the people of the means to start a revolution.
In 1991, Putin and his comrades from the KGB were traumatized by the unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union. They didn’t want any more surprises. As early as 1999, Putin proclaimed that his goal was political stability—the preservation of the regime. Putin’s advisers suggested a simple solution to the threat of revolution: controlling the means by which they thought people organized. During Putin’s first term, the government brought trade unions, opposition parties, and independent TV channels to heel. But when, in the early 2000s, a series of popular protests, known as color revolutions, started in several of Russia’s neighbors—Georgia, Serbia, and Ukraine—it became clear that the Russian government had targeted the wrong things. The Kremlin came to believe the color revolutions were the product of youth movements started from scratch, following—so Moscow thought—a political toolkit designed by the U.S. State Department to deal specifically with countries like Russia.
Ever since, the Kremlin has been locked in an imaginary arms race with the State Department. Every unexpected political change in a neighboring country—and in Russia itself—has been seen as a manifestation of the constantly evolving tactics of the Americans. In 2011, when Muscovites took to the streets to protest Putin’s return to presidency, the Kremlin saw the prominent role of Facebook and Twitter in organizing the gatherings as another cunning move by Washington, which had apparently found a way to use the Internet against autocracies. Social media’s role in the protests offered a stark warning: the security services could easily fail to prevent a revolution, as protests organized on Facebook have no leaders and no offline organizations that government agents could infiltrate and disrupt.