Analysis: AI vigilantes fuel censorship fears in Russian cyberspace

  • Government uses AI tools to flag ‘destructive’ content
  • An increasing number of Russians are facing prosecution over social media posts
  • Activists fear AI will be used to stifle dissent

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Tbilisi, Nov 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A woman wears a thong outside a church. A single mother reprimanded Russian lawmakers and President Vladimir Putin; A saxophonist who criticized the commemoration of World War II.

They are among thousands of Russians who have appeared in court over their social media posts in the past year – a number of digital rights groups say could soon turn into a deluge as authorities use artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the web.

“We expect that all content posted on social media (in Russia) will be monitored by automated programs,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, head of the legal department of digital rights group Roskomsvoboda.

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“This would be particularly bad for the young people who will be put up with red flags and will be prosecuted and fined for posting different material,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Russia has passed a raft of legislation in recent years to strengthen what it calls its “sovereignty” on the Internet and tighten control over cyberspace.

The increased scrutiny of what people say online is part of a broader crackdown that has seen Moscow pressure foreign tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook to remove content they consider illegal and block opposition websites and news outlets. Read more

While the search for banned material was up to the police or pro-government activists, the authorities are turning to artificial intelligence tools to quickly browse through millions of posts per day.

Authorities say the surveillance systems are meant to tackle crime, but rights groups fear they can be used to stifle dissent and stifle free speech.

“We are witnessing a pincer attack by governments around the world with draconian laws attacking freedom of expression and privacy online,” said Likhita Banerjee, Technology and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

Roskomnadzor, the state communications regulator, did not respond to a request for comment.

Continuous monitoring

Since 2017, Perm-based technology company SUESLAB has been providing law enforcement agencies in dozens of regions with software that its director Yevgeny Rabchevsky said can process one billion pages of social media pages and instant messaging conversations per day.

He said police are using the tool to detect and prevent crimes including terrorism, child pornography, drug-related crimes and “destructive subcultures” – a term he said referred to issues such as “child suicide propaganda” and advocacy of violence.

“The authorities use the product to assess social tensions, identify problematic issues of importance… (and) adjust their activities,” Rabchevsky said, adding that the company had recently developed an artificial intelligence tool to monitor social media activity during protests.

Last month, the Center for Study and Network Monitoring of Youth Environment, a nongovernmental organization set up on behalf of Putin, said it had developed an artificial intelligence tool to screen social media for what it considers dangerous and socially disruptive content.

The tool was created under a scheme run by the Rosmolodyozh Youth Affairs Agency, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Instead, the spokesperson referred to an interview in Forbes Russia in which the head of the NGO, Denis Zavarzin, said its system “constantly monitors” about 1.5 million accounts.

Research shows that more Russian AI-powered electronic surveillance devices are in the pipeline.

Official documents seen by Reuters in September show that authorities are developing a new monitoring system that automatically searches for blocked content on social networks and the messaging app Telegram. Read more

Tenders are also planned for two additional tools, one for visual information search and one for defense against information threats.

All three systems are expected to be operational next year, as draft budget proposals released in September showed Russia could spend 31 billion rubles ($416 million) on improving its internet infrastructure in 2022-24.

‘electronic warfare’

In Russia, there is no shortage of laws that can be offended by Internet users.

In 2019, the country imposed new fines of up to 100,000 rubles on people who spread what the authorities consider false news or show “blatant disrespect” to the state.

Court documents seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation show that the SUSLAB tool was used that year to bring charges of extremism against a woman over a blasphemous social media post in which she said there was no “homosexual god.”

Activists and others have reached a hot spot over publications related to what the government considers “extremist” organizations, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group and groups linked to imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Damir Zinotdinov, a lawyer who heads the Net Freedoms project run by the human rights organization Agora, said that in the past year journalists and bloggers received more than 1,000 fines for violations of online expression.

Gainutdinov believes the fines came from an automated system.

“Even the notification text is always the same, it is copied and pasted over and over,” he said.

According to Agora, more than 22,000 administrative cases have been filed since 2017, among them displaying prohibited codes and spreading extremist material, with cases approaching the record 7,000 in 2021 alone.

Andrei Shabanov, a saxophonist from Samara, faces charges including of Nazi rehabilitation and disrespect for the Russian military for a series of publications criticizing celebrations of the Soviet victory in World War II.

In May last year, he allegedly denounced Soviet autocracy on the Russian social networking site VKontakte, saying that the annual parade of people walking with pictures of their relatives who fought in the war was “foolish”.

The 40-year-old musician also uploaded a photo of Adolf Hitler to a website dedicated to the show, in a move his lawyer Alexei Labuzin said was meant to draw attention to what Shabanov saw as the “growth of fascism in Russia”.

Labuzin, whose client faces a maximum prison sentence of three years, said the case was emblematic of the shrinking space for online freedom of expression in the country.

Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda said the deployment of AI guards was more concerning with the lack of an adequate legal framework for digital rights and that the government was intent on “cleaning Russian cyberspace of all unwanted content.”

Earlier this year, Putin called for the internet to adhere to moral rules to stop the weariness of society and criticized what he said was its role in drawing children into opposition street protests, prostitution and drugs. Read more

Shabanov, the saxophonist, said he refrained from posting on social media for a while after starting his case, but is now back to his usual online habits, although the case is still under consideration.

“I don’t think words should be something you should be judged for,” he said on WhatsApp. “Stupid words or actions are not a crime.”

Others are more careful.

Some rights activists have urged netizens to delete old posts – or to stay away from social media altogether.

“We do not recommend our supporters to use Russian social networks in general. We do not consider them safe,” said Mikhail Klimarev, director of the Association for the Protection of the Internet, a privacy group.

“We are in a cyber war, with many people in prison and others being persecuted for their words online. Self-censorship is becoming more and more common practice. I notice myself that sometimes I prefer to remain silent.”

(1 dollar = 74.5560 rubles)

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(Reporting) UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Joumana Farooqui and Zoe Tabari. Please refer to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. visit http://news.trust.org

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