Metrics of Freedom: Russian technologists’ measures of online liberties as a rallying point for the “Free RuNet” movement


Since the early 2010s, the Russian Internet (RuNet) is experiencing a progressive turn towards “governance by infrastructure” (DeNardis & Musiani, 2016) with an obligation for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to reconfigure their networks by installing expensive and complex technical equipment to enable filtering, surveillance and storage of users’ traffic (Ermoshina & Musiani, 2017). In the context of the new “Sovereign Internet” doctrine, the formerly decentralized ecosystem of ISPs is experiencing a trend towards centralization, with small providers disappearing due to harsh regulation. This centralization is actively criticized by technologists who defend a certain vision of a “Free RuNet”, decentralized and without censorship. In order to defend this technical and political ideal, they deploy new instruments of expert mobilization.

Among the instruments used by this community is the “Index of Freedom of the RuNet”, a metrics system developed by the Society for Protection of the Internet. This Index “calculates” the effects of legal, technical and political events (e.g., adoption of a new law) on the functioning of Internet in Russia. Another way to monitor the “health” of the RuNet is the “Connectivity Index”, based on measures of speed and quality of connections between Russian and foreign servers. These indexes produce a “shared meaning” and enable communication between different actors that constitute the “community of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Bowker & Star, 1999) of the defenders of “Internet Freedom”. Indexes, presented as graphs and tables, are actively mobilized by technologists in their communication with media, regulators and international colleagues in order to make “visible” the “crisis” of the RuNet.

This study, at the intersection of STS and pragmatist sociology, analyzes these tools of classification and measurement. What does it mean to “measure” Internet Freedom? How do we translate freedom into measurable parameters? The paper is based on an interdisciplinary fieldwork conducted for the past two years within a research project on the critique of digital coercion in Russia. We have conducted an analysis of the relevant indexes and metrics, collected interviews with technologists and legal experts involved in production of these indexes, as well as conducted web-ethnography of selected forums and chats within the community. We observed international events where such indexes were presented and commented upon, in order to analyze their effect on media and Internet regulation, as well as on the international “Internet freedom” community.


Bowker, G. and Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

DeNardis, L. and Musiani, F., 2016. Governance by infrastructure. In The turn to infrastructure in Internet governance (pp. 3-21). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Ermoshina, K. and Musiani, F., 2017. Migrating servers, elusive users: Reconfigurations of the Russian Internet in the post-Snowden era. Media and Communication, 5(1), pp.42-53.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press