Our Association has already described the peculiarities of the existence of the Crimean information space under the Russian occupation , but then only the spheres of television and radio broadcasting were in focus. The time has come to study other methods of disseminating information, as well as the Russian invaders’ “control and supervisory bodies” activities to censor them.
“The territorial bodies of the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Communications” (hereinafter – “Roskomnadzor”) in the occupied Crimea issued more than 8 thousand “licenses for the provision of telematic communication services”. Of these, 2,517 remain “active” at the moment . Such an avalanche-like decline indicates either the “productive prohibitive work” of the “federal enforcement agency” or fierce competition in this area. Associate Professor Andrey Chvalyuk will try to find out the real reason for this reduction.
Telematics’ license is one of the most demanded types of licenses in the Russian control system . From a legal point of view, telematics covers both the field of communication services and data processing. According to the decree of the Government of Russia, “telematic electronic message” is one or several telecommunication messages containing information structured in accordance with the exchange protocol supported by the interacting information system and the subscriber terminal . Russian laws specifically do not provide a clearer definition of telematic communication services, so that almost any type of information transmission falls under the license for telematics. This position clearly characterizes the intentions of the aggressor-State to keep under its control all methods of transmitting information, both currently existing and those that are still being developed.
Today, there are more than 100 different telematic services: fax services, electronic messaging services, voice messaging services, audio/video conferencing services, and services for accessing information stored in electronic form. However, we are interested in the most popular “telematic service”, namely “Providing access to the Internet”, as well as persons and organizations that are Internet providers and operate in the occupied Crimea. Because the Russian “administration” can influence the freedom to receive and distribute information in the occupied territory, through restricting the work of Internet providers or by establishing additional “rules” for them.
Residents of large cities, such as Simferopol and Sevastopol have the ‘widest choice’ of providers in the occupied Crimea. According to the “Roskomnadzor’s” register, 60 “legal entities and individual entrepreneurs” provide Internet access services in Simferopol, and 40 – in Sevastopol. In total, excluding repetitions, there are 93 different providers, each of which has one dedicated line, except for LLC “K + Telecom”, which for some reason has two, high-speed and low-speed ones. Many providers are subcontractors and operate in a very small area, namely within individual suburban villages, and others, such as the “state unitary enterprise” “Chernomorneftegaz”, have become providers for themselves and do not provide services to the side. As a result, there remain about 45 providers, and there are tendencies towards a decrease in their number.
The first reason is the so-called “Yarovaya Law”, namely the package of amendments adopted by the State Duma of Russia in July 2016. The new rules obliged Internet companies to store information about the facts of receiving and transmitting data for at least one year. In the future, by the decree of the Government of Russia, it was clarified that the operator is also obliged to increase the volume of data storage by 15 percent per year, starting from five years after the entry into force of these norms . In connection with the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, the Russian Government approved a temporary relaxation of traffic storage requirements for service providers in accordance with the “Yarovaya Law”. In particular, the regulation on increasing the requirements for traffic storage was suspended for one year . But already in 2023, Internet companies operating “in the Russian legal field” will face the acute issue of purchasing special equipment. Taking into account the fact that “budget money” was not allocated to ensure the implementation of these “legislative changes”, not all Internet providers in the Crimea were able to financially master the “innovations”. Someone immediately stopped their activities, and the rest increased sharply the prices of their services.
After the tariffs increased by 1.5-2 times, which caused the expected dissatisfaction of subscribers, the “Federal Antimonopoly Service” became interested in the facts of the “increase in payment”, and the “head of the republic” even promised to “figure out the situation”. However, such “investigation” did not end with anything, since local providers, who received “requests from the antimonopoly service”, wrote off their tariff increase for allegedly “tariff increases by trunk operators”, and they, in turn, shifted the responsibility to the “infrastructure owners” (cable ducts, power line supports, and so on) . Indeed, the cost of renting poles from the “unitary enterprise” “Krymenergo” really increased by 2.5 times in 2019, but as a result, large market participants neutralized their losses at the expense of individual entrepreneurs and residents of Crimea – the end consumers of Internet services.
Some Internet providers, such as “Megafon” and “Beeline”, directly named the “Yarovaya Law” and the “Law on Sovereign Runet” as the main reasons for the price increase. And taking into account the fact, that the provision of their services in the occupied Crimea is already being by the increased rate of “intranet roaming”, then access to the mobile Internet in the Crimea will soon move from a basic service to a luxury one.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, a mobile plan offering 10 GB of data cost Russians 1 percent of gross national income per capita until 2019 . Naturally, the authors of the report did not take into account the territory of the occupied peninsula, for obvious reasons, but the pricing policy, as we have already found out, there is significantly inclined towards increase. This means that Crimean residents will have to spend a significant part of their income on Internet services, or be content with the refined propaganda broadcast by “federal television” and various channels of local “authorities”.
Polls conducted by the “Public Opinion Foundation” in Russia itself show that, despite the fact that television remains the main source of information for the population, more and more people, namely 44 %, receive news from online Internet-sources. Trust in information from the Internet is growing, while trust in information from television is declining . Perhaps this is why “Roskomnadzor” and other state bodies of the aggressor-State have tightened control and punishment for online publications that adhere to an independent editorial line.
Another factor behind the rise in tariffs for Internet service providers in the Crimea was the “increase in the value added tax rate” from 18 to 20 percent in January 2019. But that’s not all.
The Russian Government uses the System of Operational Investigation Activities to carry out its surveillance activities on the Web. According to the current Russian legislation, in order to obtain an operating license, Internet providers are required to install equipment that allows security services to track Internet traffic. Providers that do not comply with the System’s requirements are immediately fined and may lose licenses if problems persist .
The cost of installing new equipment is compounded by the Russian Government’s import substitution policy, which requires ICT companies to use Russian-made hardware and software . And while some market participants lose money from the introduction of new laws “on import substitution”, some firms profit from this. For example, the Russian state corporation “Rostec” has already sold special equipment to telecom operators and Internet providers in the amount of 10 billion rubles . And its income will only grow.
The second reason to hinder the existence and development of Crimean Internet providers is the activities of “Roskomnadzor”, the body that gives them a “start in life”. More recently, the activities of Crimean Internet providers “were not subject to licensing” , but now “work without a license” is considered by the Russian invaders as a “crime”. And for the normal activity of the provider, at least two “licenses” are required, firstly, for “telematic communication services” and, secondly, for “communication services for data transmission, with the exception of communication services for data transmission for the purpose of transmitting voice information”. In addition, each additional service (IP-telephony, hosting, data backup, digital TV) also requires “licensing” and additional time and financial costs. Only one “state tax” for obtaining these two basic “licenses” will cost the provider 7,500 rubles.
The “procedure for issuing and canceling a license for telematic communication services” has also changed. If earlier it was handed to the provider on paper, and it had to be “withdrawn” through the “court”, now the process of blocking “unwanted” ones has become much easier. Now the “license” can be “canceled” by “Roskomnadzor” independently, “on the basis of Article 39 of the Federal Law “On Communications”, as well as Article 20 of the Federal Law “On Licensing of Certain Types of Activities”. In most cases, “license revocation” is preceded by two preliminary stages: “warning about the suspension of the license” and “suspension of the license” . However, an important clarification is that the stage of issuing this “warning” remains a “right, not an obligation” of “Roskomnadzor”. Accordingly, the supervisory authority may not “warn”, but immediately “suspend the license”, stating “the identification of violations that may entail damage to the rights, legitimate interests, life or health of a person, as well as ensuring the needs of public authorities, the needs of defense country, state security and law and order”.
Russian lawyers themselves, examining the “legal nature of the institution of prevention” issued by “Roskomnadzor”, come to the conclusion that “there are no legal and elementary logical grounds to consider a written warning a preventive measure” and they admit that it “is a full-fledged measure of responsibility” . That is why the “judicial bodies” of the Russian invaders are so categorical in the “assessment of non-execution” of this “warning” by the persons to whom it was sent.
The difference between “suspension of the license” from its “cancellation” is that in the first case, the “license” can be renewed if “the license holder eliminates the violations that led to the suspension”  or – if he “appeals the fact of suspension in court”. In this case, the invaders’ “court” will have to take the side of the Internet provider, which is extremely unlikely.
Although providers and website owners can appeal the restrictions in the European Court of Human Rights, or use other international mechanisms for the protection of rights, the prospects for the execution of these decisions by “Roskomnadzor” are illusory for the Crimean residents. The status of the Crimea as a “gray zone”, Russian restrictive laws , combined with the repressive activities of “law enforcement, judicial and control and oversight bodies”, completely undermined the freedom of expression of Crimean inhabitants on the Internet.
“Roskomnadzor” has never been impartial or independent. Being under the control of the Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, it further expanded his powers after the adoption of another law, which received the common name “On Sovereign Runet” . And now the Russian Government fully regulates the electronic communications and media sectors, both in Russia itself and in the occupied Crimea also.
Crimean Internet providers, in order not to fall out of favor themselves, are forced to respond in a timely manner to the “instructions” of “Roskomnadzor”, regarding the blocking of various sites and to monitor additions to the “black list of Roskomnadzor”. And it is quite extensive. There were periods when “Roskomnadzor” blocked more than 18 million IP addresses (worldwide), which affected online stores, banks, air ticket systems, news sites and other social networks and communication platforms . Now the situation has improved a little, but all the same, sites are regularly blocked on suspicion of “disseminating extremist materials” or because of the publication of statistics that differ from the “official” one, for example, on the number of patients with coronavirus.
A test algorithm, that automatically removes content included in the “federal list of extremist materials” from personal correspondence of users, has so far been implemented only on the Russian social network “VKontakte”. In addition to removing prohibited content, the algorithm also sends a warning to the violator that if the violation is repeated, his profile will be permanently blocked . The rest of the persons who have registered the address of the resource on the network have to delete the “extremist” and “slanderous” content manually within 24 hours from the moment of receiving the notification from “Roskomnadzor”, otherwise they will be fined. Individuals or organizations that distribute “fake news”, if they do not remove the “offensive content” in time, face a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles. If the extrajudicial order of “Roskomnadzor” on blocking content on the website by its owner is not executed in time, this content will be included in the “black list”, and Internet providers are obliged to block this content.
Occupying “authorities” often do not clearly indicate the specific pages they want to block on a particular website, or the means by which ISPs should restrict access to websites. The lack of clear “government directives” forces ISPs to restrict access to the widest possible range of websites in order to avoid “fines” and threats to their operating “licenses” . All this increases labor costs and reduces the profits of the providers.
In addition to “Roskomnadzor”, other structures, for example, the Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office, are also involved in tracking the appearance on the Internet of the information, undesirable for the invaders’ “authorities”. In March 2020, they identified a publication on the “Facebook” social network of one of the users, who disseminated information about “numerous facts of coronavirus infection in Crimea”. The reaction was immediate and a demand was sent to “Roskomnadzor” “to take measures to restrict access to this information on the Internet, including in the case of transferring similar materials to other Internet resources” .
In a joint report on pressure on Internet freedom in Russia in 2019, the human rights group “Agora” and “RosKomSvoboda” noted that the scale of restrictions on access to information imposed by Russian government agencies increased by 70 % over the year. The monitoring included information about restrictions on Internet freedom in the Crimea, including Sevastopol, since the territory of the peninsula is actually controlled by the Russian “authorities”, which are responsible for observing human rights and freedoms there.
“Agora” pointed that there were cases of violence or threats in connection with the exercise of the right to freedom of expression on the Internet in the Crimea; Crimean “courts” issued “sentences” related to real imprisonment for actions on the Internet, and in addition, many Crimean journalists  received “suspended sentences” for their online publications. Crimean streamers filming the actions of “law enforcement agencies” were brought to “administrative responsibility for violating the rules for holding mass events”. But this seemed to the invaders not enough and they collected one more “case” on these streamers, already for the “publication of extremist materials” . Also access to 14 Ukrainian Internet portals is completely limited in the Crimea, and 28 resources were partially blocked, and this happen without the framework of the “Russian register of prohibited sites” .
It is noteworthy that a significant part of these resources remains unblocked on the territory of Russia itself, but access to them is closed in the Crimea . The latter indicates once again that the “Crimean” “Roskomnadzor” obviously goes beyond its “legal powers” and the supervising Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development “does not notice” these violations.
Recent “legislative changes” have led to the fact that “FSB officers”, after receiving a “court order to intercept electronic communications”, are no longer required to show “orders” to telematic service providers. Now the punitive structures of the invaders have direct access to providers’ servers through local control centers. Experts note that there is, of course, no information on the prosecution of “officials” who can abuse these “broad opportunities” . Moreover, Internet services are “required to provide access to user correspondence” at the “request of the FSB” and without a “court order”.
According to Dmitry Galushko, general director of the consulting company “OrderCom” and concurrently “an independent expert of the Ministry of Justice of Russia”, Russian “security agencies” started to control over the implementation of the requirements of the “Yarovaya law” exactly from the Crimea, “justifying” this by the “political situation in the region” . Restraining popular discontent by toughening penalties for “extremism” is traditional for Russian imperial management. And now, for an accidentally clicked like or for thoughtlessly made repost, you can get a “fine” in the occupied Crimea, and if such a “flagrant violation” is “revealed” again within a year, then person get a real “prison term”.
Assistance to the FSB and “Roskomnadzor” is provided by the so-called “cyber-vigilantes” – members of a “voluntary youth organization”, engaged in manual monitoring of social networks in search of prohibited content. The website of “Cyber-Squad” says that it consists of 20 thousand people in “32 regions of Russia” . Since 2017, the “cyber-squads” began to be formed by the Russian occupation “bodies” in the Crimea . Having found the “violation”, “cyber-vigilantes” write a statement to “Roskomnadzor”. However, everybody can also complain about any content anonymously, so anyone can do it as well. There is information that the FSB has created a whole army of bots on social networks that massively send such complaints, forcing the administration of social networks to respond and block the content.
According to the data of open sources, the results of the last three years of work of “cyber-vigilantes” in Crimea are rather modest. For example, the convulsive attempts of the Yalta “administration” in 2017-2018 to “organize an appropriate process” led exclusively to paper results. It is obvious that neither the students, nor the teachers, nor even the “administrations” of the town’s educational institutions were eager to implement this initiative on “cyber groups” for schoolchildren and “cyber squads” for students .
The “prescript” of the Yalta “administration” No. 1220-12 of 2017 on the creation of “cyber groups” and “cyber squads” envisaged that all Russia-controlled “punitive structures” in Yalta, as well as the southern coastal “offices” of “United Russia” and its “Young Guard”, and the leadership of the “Humanitarian and Pedagogical Academy”, controlled by the aggressor-Stateб would be in charge of their activities . It follows from the publications that at the initial stage, the Russian invaders considered the “School of the Future”, the Yalta secondary school No. 2, which until 2014 was an exemplary educational institution with focus on teaching computer science, as the “base” for the work of the Yalta “cyber squads”.
Olga Simonova, a teacher of computer science at this school and concurrently chairman of the “Voskhod-2” housing cooperative, was the main executor of the projects for “cyber-vigilants”. However, there is no information in open sources not only about the successes of the Yalta-located “cyber squads”, but also about the fact that the desire to assist Russia-controlled punitive forces in their “fight against extremism” somehow helped Ms. Simonova herself in her scientific or commercial career. We should add that in Russia itself, “cluster” cells of “cyber squads” were created in universities with strong faculties and departments of computer science, such as Voronezh or Surgut ones, with an obvious focus on the subsequent employment of distinguished “vigilantes” in Russian punitive structures.
In this respect, the successive attempts of the invaders to “keep afloat” the activities of the “cyber squad” at the “Sevastopol State University” are noteworthy, as this is a key institution of the regional level for “training personnel” for the Russian special services. In March 2021, at the local “Institute of Radio Electronics and Information Security”, a kind of “student volunteer association” “Information Security Cyber Agents” was created. It is noteworthy that not only the “traditional bodies” of the Russian punishers were noted among its curators, but also such an interesting structure as “the apparatus of the anti-terrorist commission in the city of Sevastopol” .
The aggressor’s propaganda repeatedly quotes the student of the mentioned “institute” Vyacheslav Stasyuk, regarding the “methods of work of the vigilantes”. As this kin of Leonid Stasyuk, the long-term head of the propaganda newspaper “Sevastopolskie Izvestia”, artlessly informs that “we find prohibited content by certain keywords” and later “we fill out a form and send it to “Roskomnadzor”, and they make a decision on blocking” .
However, the pace of “blocking” in the performance of these students clearly does not impress Andrey Kopylov, their curator from the “anti-terrorist commission of Sevastopol” and the former “police officer for combating extremism” . Therefore, in the fall of 2021, the students of the “Sevastopol Industrial and Technological College” were also persistently encouraged to adopt the skills of “cyber-whipping” by the same representatives of punitive structures . This former vocational school now trains not only cooks and tile tillers, but also “lawyers” for the increasingly inflated staff of “multi-storey offices” of the invaders’ punitive structures .
The activities of cyber-intruders also bring financial benefits to the aggressor State. In October 2017, the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, Yuri Chikhanchin, presented as an achievement at a meeting with Vladimir Putin, that Russia has launched an extrajudicial freezing mechanism for the assets of persons “related to terrorism”. The official reported that in 2017 alone, about six million rubles were frozen. Lawyer Ivan Pavlov, commenting on this situation, reports that there is no clear procedure for “unfreezing” frozen accounts at all. Only in rare cases do convicts succeed in getting their assets removed from the list, usually as a result of an amnesty .
The constant increase in the interference of “regulatory and supervisory authorities” in the Internet communications sector poses an additional risk for Crimean Internet users. So far, this process has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Kremlin is again starting to force the situation. Measures of “criminal and administrative responsibility” continue to be widely used by the Russian invaders to suppress critical discussion on the Internet.
Not only open criticism of the actions of the Russian invaders’ “authorities’ or a statement of their illegality is punished now, but also any non-violent expression of opinion on the Internet that goes beyond the boundaries of the ideology, established by the Kremlin. Cases on charges of “extremism” are growing like mushrooms after rain in the Crimea, because for Russian punitive forces this is an easy indicator. Instead of looking for real criminals or even for politic opponents of the regime, you can simply monitor the Internet using keywords and concoct a case without leaving your office. This is exactly what Russian punishers are now actively engaged in.