Russia’s outlawing of Facebook and Instagram after declaring the activities of the sites’ parent company, Meta Platforms, as “extremist” is part of a broadening crackdown on free speech inside the country since Moscow’s war with Ukraine started last month.

The full implications of the March 21 Moscow court ruling are unclear and the case originates in part from Meta’s decision earlier this month to allow some calls for violence against Russian soldiers and President Vladimir Putin on its platforms.

But the decision fits into a wider campaign being waged by the Kremlin against big tech and ongoing efforts to control the flow of information that has accelerated since Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

In addition to targeting foreign platforms, the Kremlin has also gone after foreign news organizations, leading many to pull out of the country. Russian authorities have also passed new laws that criminalize public statements about Ukraine that do not align with the Kremlin’s official view of what it calls the “special military operation.”

The growing crackdown could have major implications for the future of civil society and an open Internet inside Russia and has echoes of the beginning of the vast Internet censorship system built inside China known as the “Great Firewall.”

Russia has been ranked low on measures of openness for some time, but its recent steps to constrain the activities of Western social media platforms and to clamp down on expressions of dissent have really taken a toll on freedom of information within Russia.

"China has what is known as the "Great Firewall" [and] China really tries to dominate digital distribution channels [with] national champions of its own," Brandt says.
China has what is known as the “Great Firewall” [and] China really tries to dominate digital distribution channels [with] national champions of its own

One thing that’s important to note is that Russia [has generally] been fairly measured — or calculating — in the way that it has pursued its clampdown on big tech. For example, it has blocked Facebook and Instagram but has made exceptions for WhatsApp, and it has threatened Google but has kept YouTube relatively unrestricted. Now, WhatsApp and YouTube are channels that are much more frequently used among the Russian population for coordination and for sharing information than, for example, Facebook and YouTube.

Russia has had a tightly controlled information space for a long time, but it’s [still] a much different picture than in China. There has been independent media in Russia [and] there is access to Western social media platforms. That’s just not the case in China. Recent moves are taking [Russia] closer to the China model, but there are still significant differences.

There’s a lot of talk about how Moscow’s crackdown on big tech is accelerating a splintering of the Internet — and that’s the case — but right now what we’re seeing is that [it’s] splintering primarily at the content layer, which is very different than splintering at the sort of fundamental architecture of the Internet.

China has really pioneered that path and Russia may seek to follow it, but there are lots of reasons to think that it’s not quite capable of doing that right now. It just doesn’t have the chip capacity, and recent moves to sanction Russia will make it only harder for it to access the technology that it needs to do that.

So there are ways in which this is taking Russia down a Chinese path, but I think there are differences that persist.