A Library Journal Best Book of 2015
A NPR Great Read of 2015
The Internet in Russia is either the most efficient totalitarian tool or the device by which totalitarianism will be overthrown. Perhaps both.
On the eighth floor of an ordinary-looking building in an otherwise residential district of southwest Moscow, in a room occupied by the Federal Security Service (FSB), is a box the size of a VHS player marked SORM. The Russian government's front line in the battle for the future of the Internet, SORM is the world's most intrusive listening device, monitoring e-mails, Internet usage, Skype, and all social networks.
But for every hacker subcontracted by the FSB to interfere with Russia's antagonists abroad -- such as those who, in a massive denial-of-service attack, overwhelmed the entire Internet in neighboring Estonia -- there is a radical or an opportunist who is using the web to chip away at the power of the state at home.
Drawing from scores of interviews personally conducted with numerous prominent officials in the Ministry of Communications and web-savvy activists challenging the state, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan peel back the history of advanced surveillance systems in Russia. From research laboratories in Soviet-era labor camps, to the legalization of government monitoring of all telephone and Internet communications in the 1990s, to the present day, their incisive and alarming investigation into the Kremlin's massive online-surveillance state exposes just how easily a free global exchange can be coerced into becoming a tool of repression and geopolitical warfare. Dissidents, oligarchs, and some of the world's most dangerous hackers collide in the uniquely Russian virtual world of The Red Web.
Soldatov and Borogan, journalists who have covered the Russian secret services for over a decade, document what they deem the "monumental battle for the future of the Internet." They examine the history of surveillance technologies in Russia, the Soviet Union's authoritarian control over information and its distribution, and the legacy of this mindset as it reverberates in the Russia in the Internet age. The authors argue that Putin's repressive impulse has deep roots in Russia's Soviet past, and the first part of the book is dedicated to exploring these roots, but it presumes the reader has a working knowledge of Soviet history and Russian current events. The second and more comprehensive part of the book examines Putin's power grabs and the Russian government's use of surveillance, overt censorship, and intimidation through technology in recent years. This section also profiles the "online revolutionaries" who resist intimidation, censorship, and blacklisting, finding creative ways to use the Internet to circumvent and undermine the power of the government and security services. The authors laud the horizontal networks enabled by the Internet and find hope in the Arab Spring, the Moscow protests, and Euromaidan proof of the networks' abilities to counter and resist the authoritarian push. This critique of Putin's administration is best suited for readers interested in Russian current events.