Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin has gone to extreme lengths to control the flow of information in Russia, but there’s one step he hasn’t dared take: shutting down YouTube.
Why it matters: One of Putin’s first initiatives upon taking office 20 years ago was to bring Russia’s independent TV networks under his control. But YouTube has replaced TV in the news and entertainment diets of Russians under 30, and it's become the go-to platform for Putin’s critics, Russian journalist Andrey Loshak tells Axios.
The big picture: Loshak has explored Putin’s attempt to bring Russia’s once free-wheeling internet under his control in the award-winning Current Time documentary, “InterNYET: A History of the Russian Internet."
Flashback: Putin convened a meeting on the internet as prime minister in 1999, Loshak says. He had one question: “Can it be controlled?”
- But for the next decade, his crackdowns on the media largely ignored the internet, which he never viewed as a threat to his power. That was until the 2011–2012 protests against his return to the presidency.
- Putin then realized the significance of the internet as a tool to mobilize the opposition. “It’s hard to put all these ingredients back in the pot,” says Loshak of the relatively open internet that existed to that point. “But he’s trying."
Driving the news: A new law gives the Kremlin the power to sever Russia's connection to the world wide web under "emergency" circumstances.
- Moscow announced what it called a successful test of that system last December. More tests are planned for this year.
- “This isn’t like China where you can get around it with a VPN. This is the North Korean model — an intranet," says Loshak, who believes Putin views the off switch he's building for the global internet as a "last resort."
Putin has taken intermediary steps to tame Russia’s internet.
- Some have been unsuccessful. A search engine launched by the government attracted less than 1% of users. Loshak predicts a similar fate for a Kremlin-approved version of Wikipedia.
But the government has turned the screws on Russia's domestic internet giants.
- Yandex, a search platform even more popular than Google in Russia, now serves articles that take the Kremlin line above those criticizing it, Loshak says. On social media platforms, pro-Kremlin trolls “pollute the discussion.”
- Putin has tried to intimidate Western giants, demanding that Google and Facebook store users’ data in Russia. They’ve resisted, but Moscow’s decision to block LinkedIn on similar grounds in 2016 appeared to be a warning shot.
Which brings us back to YouTube — where Russia’s most visible opposition figures, including Alexei Navalny, can be heard. Why doesn’t Putin simply ban it?
- “It has a very special meaning and prominence in Russia now,” Loshak says.
- “To shut down YouTube means shutting down the young generation and turning people under 30 against the government.”
What to watch: “He’s dreaming about how to destroy it, but it’s dangerous," says Loshak.