Is Russia an Enemy of Internet?

The degree of freedom on the Russian Internet is an issue for debates. Some put Russia on the same list of “Internet enemies” with China and Iran. Others strongly oppose this kind of generalization and claim that Russian Internet is the most liberal and unrestricted public sphere in the country.

The recent “Internet enemies” report [ENG] by international non-governmental organization “Reporters Without Borders” tried to bring some order in regards to placement of Russia on the Internet freedom scale. The organization placed the country on the list of “Countries under surveillance.” This placement and especially the justification for it by the report’s authors raised discussion and disagreement in Russia.

The original report states [ENG]:

After the takeover by the Kremlin of the audiovisual media early in the Putin era, the Internet became the freest space for discussion and information-sharing in Russia. Yet its dependence is threatened by blogger arrests and prosecutions, and the blocking of independent websites labeled as “extremist.” The Web has also become a first-rate sphere of activity for government propaganda and could become a political control mechanism.

It names a long list of government affiliated activities that should be considered as limitation of Internet freedom. Among those activities is web surveillance system “SORM-2″ that makes possible to monitor online content for security agencies. The reported also noted the fact that some of major social media platforms were bought out by oligarchs with close ties to the government. “Reporters Without Borders” additionally cited the story of blocking oppositional websites by WIMAX Internet provider Yota, cyber attacks against liberal websites and persecutions against bloggers.

But there are some more optimistic statements. The report suggests that “the Internet has become a space in which people can denounce the corruption of Russian officials.” However, it concludes that despite this fact “the impact of these online mobilizations, blogs and new media on Russian society is still relatively limited” and warns that censorship on RuNet (Russian Internet) may increase.

Right after the report was released, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a broadcaster funded by the U.S. Congress, asked few Russian Internet experts to comment on the report. Famous blogger and journalist Oleg Kozyrev said [RUS] to RFE/RL:

We in the situation when every blogger can became a subject of a criminal case. But there is no total persecution of bloggers in Russian. There are some episodic strikes on some civil activists. I would split the bloggers situation in two parts: persecution by the government with the help of enforcement agencies and the situation when a blogger falls under administrative or criminal violations because the law did not protect him effectively.

The executive director of “Social networks” agency Denis Terehov opposes [RUS] the idea of censorship on RuNet:

What kind of censorship we can talk about when there are 60 mln accounts on Vkontakte.ru, 50 mln accounts on Odnoklassniki.ru and two mln online journals on Livejournal.com? Who prevents someone from writing? We are not in China where they censor Google. We are not in Kazakhstan where they turned off Livejournal.com. Nobody forbids anyone to write and express his position.

The head of “Freedom of Speech Protection Foundation” Aleksey Simonov emphasizes [RUS] the difference between Internet and Russian traditional media where editors and reporters know in advance what they are not allowed to say:

In regards to Internet, there can't be any censorship. Censorship is preliminary analysis before the process of publication. But one cannot review a blog in advance, can one? The issue is not in preventing something to be published but in punishing someone for something that has been already published. And it is called differently.

However, beyond the discussion if the Russian Internet is censored or not, the way that this claim was explained by the “Internet Enemies” report raised some debates and discussion. Alexander Amzin, Internet expert for the major Russian online news agency Lenta.ru wrote an article that argued with most of facts that were included in the Russian chapter of the “Reporters without Borders” report.

Amzin writes [RUS]

These six pages are the most amazing collection of myths and legends about RuNet for last few years.

According to Amzin, some of the facts in the report are old news. For instance, SORM-2 system works since 2000 and there are no clear evidences that it caused any repressive actions. Moreover, Amzin reminds that most of countries in the world have some systems for traffic monitoring. Other old news a purchase of Livejournal.com by a Russian oligarch with some ties to the Kremlin. There also no clear evidences that it had any impact on freedom of expression on this most popular blogging platform in the country.

Amzin also reminds that the blocking of websites by Yota provider included governmental websites. He notes that the further development of this incident showed that this block was not censorship but a technical problem. The Lenta.ru expert points out that Vadim Charushev who was confined against his will in a psychiatric hospital wasn’t the creator of Vkontakte.ru social networks, as the report claims, but a social networking activist. Amzin also disagrees with the claim that Russian law authorized the government to intercept Web data without a prior court order.

The most outrage of Amzin was caused by the report's statement about a group called the “Brigade” that includes people who leave pro-government comments (some of them are allegedly doing it for money).

Unfortunately, no one explained to experts from “Reporters Without borders” that “the brigade” is an urban legend of RuNet. People say that every popular blogger has a curator in security organizations. People say that every patriot gets salary. People say that authorities organize DDoS attacks against oppositional web servers. Those are all rumors from the same box. To approach it in a critical way you can just use the Hanlon's Razor («Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity» ).

Amzin also says that the claim that online mobilization is limited on RuNet ignores the reality. However, there is one point the Russian expert agrees on:

One can get an impression that the report includes only mistake. That is not true. There is a serious part of this document that takes one page. It is a list of bloggers who were a subject for criminal prosecution for their opinion or became subjects of criminal cases. Indeed, bloggers do go to jail and it’s very bad.

The article by Amzin also raised a discussion among RuNet users. Some of them claimed that Amzin himself demonstrates exaggerated patriotism and mentioned very recent stories that raised lack of confidence in RuNet zone including shutting down of Torrents.ru and Ifolder.ru websites. One can also recall the case of Yandex blog rating closure [ENG] that removed one of the most powerful platforms for alternative agenda setting on RuNet.

One of the comments to Amzin's criticism, however, opposes [RUS] the claim that the “Brigade” is just an urban legend:

There are [online] trolls. All sites where people discuss our own crap are flooded with stupid comments of one type with the purpose to water down the discussion to banal insults. And there is a salary paid for it. And there are curators. Author, are you one of them? The hysterical attempt to list the entire mistake from the “Internet enemies” report is portrayed as a proof for lack of objectivity of the whole chapter. Does the author believe that “Reporter Without Borders” are not able to monitor information about RuNet?

The controversy around Russian chapter of “Internet enemies” report emphasizes the high degree of complexity of the reality in the Russian segment of the Internet. The questions of government’s involvement nature, censorship and limiting freedom of speech have no simple answer. RuNet has to be under surveillance. Including Russia in the list of countries that should raise concerns is certainly justified. But it also requires careful approach that can distinguish myth form facts, try to investigate the complexity, and avoid “black and white” approach that categorizes some of processes as evidences for repressive actions by government.

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