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Nervous Kremlin seeks to purge Russia's internet of 'western' influences

Publication time: 20 April 2012, 12:45
Unlike other media, the internet in Russia, has developed largely untouched by the arm of the state.

The protests have prompted many to wonder: is that about to change?

That is the view of most internet observers in Russia: that it's too late, and too technologically complicated, to institute a China-style firewall. Yet the government is infamous for its attention to propaganda, and for the power of its suspicious spy services, and there are signs that it is seeking to boost its ability to control the internet.

Opposition bloggers and activists have already come under attack from the state, via prosecutors and the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor agency to the KGB. Some have been arrested, others called in for questioning. Websites have been shut by spurious means. But for now, it has been an entirely ad hoc approach.

Current and former officials in the FSB and other security service have been at the forefront of calls for an internet crackdown. With Putin's return to the presidency next month, their power and influence is only expected to grow.

Late last month, the FSB deputy director called for a purge of the Russian blogosphere's western influences, echoing Putin's line that Russia's discontent is being fomented from abroad. Sergei Smirnov said, during a regional security conference, western secret services were using "new technologies" to "create and maintain constant tension in societies.

The calls for internet regulation began one week after the first major anti-government protest erupted in December in the wake of a contested parliamentary vote. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia's security council and former head of the FSB, cited China, as well as the United States, as an example of "reasonable regulation" of the internet.

That is the line taken by Putin himself, a man who has admitted to hardly ever using the internet, even forgoing computers in order to write texts by hand. He has publicly stood up for internet freedom several times, while warning of the web's pernicious side.

That is what government critics fear most -

that the state will not adopt an explicitly anti-internet strategy, but use existing and new laws to crack down instead. They point to the country's widely used "anti-extremism law", a policy adopted ostensibly Islamist and nationalist crime and terrorism, but which has been used with abandon against the country's liberal opposition activists, environmentalists and gay rights campaigners.

Russia's interior minister said last week that his ministry would soon open a department focusing on extremism in "electronic media". The justice ministry has already banned about 1,000 websites from being viewed in Russia - from Islamist terror networks to illegal music downloading sites - all under the anti-extremism law.

In the latest case of the law's use against bloggers, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into an opposition figure in February after he wrote a post discussing the possibility of holding unsanctioned opposition protests at the height of Russia's pre-electoral tension.

The law also seeds censorship, said Alexander Morozov, a popular blogger and head of the Centre for Media Studies, a Moscow think tank. "The anti-extremism laws act as an instrument of fear," he said. "It puts pressure on you - you start to write more carefully, realizing you could face seven years in prison."

The government has also deployed other laws. This month, a court in Kemerovo found a local blogger guilty of "insulting a state official in public" after he wrote two blog posts mocking the Siberian region's governor. He was given 11 months of community services and a large fine.

As anti-Putin sentiment began to rise online and in the streets in January, the FSB summoned Pavel Durov, founder of VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, for questioning, demanding his site close several opposition group pages. He rejected their summons and demands, and the case was dropped.

Russia's actions on the internet have so far mimicked its actions offline - from the use of politicised laws to crack down on opposition, to the deployment of trolls from pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, to overt attacks, in the form of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, deployed against liberal sites in the lead-up to the parliamentary vote and often used against LiveJournal, Russians' blogging platform of choice.

Now, observers are keeping a keen eye on a new group called the Safe Internet League, a body that counts officials from the FSB and the communications ministry, as well as representatives of the three major - and state-friendly - private telecommunications firms, on its board. The group is so far focusing on introducing stringent anti-child pornography legislation to Russia, but admits it may launch other campaigns in the future, without providing details.

The lack of an overarching internet strategy has not prevented officials from testing the grounds of a Chinese approach. In July 2010, a court in the far eastern region of Khabarovsk ordered a local internet provider to shut down YouTube, after finding it hosted extremist nationalist videos.

Source: The Guardian

Kavkaz Center



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