By Khatuna Mshvidobadze
Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
After failing to stifle opposition websites and social media during the December Duma elections and abandoning the Internet to the opposition during the March presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears now to understand that the Web plays an immense role in forming the mindset of the people. Like many countries with democracy deficits, Russia is toughening up its Internet strategies. Soon after Putin’s inauguration as president, a number of laws were adopted to tighten state control over wired public life. On the Runet—a colloquial term for Russia’s bit of the Internet—control has become a matter of state security.
During the 2011 run-up to the elections, blog-sites and social networks became arenas for news, discussion of alleged government misconduct and protest organization. Having successfully employed social media to reveal election irregularities, wired opponents of the current government then used social media to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of cities across Russia right after the Duma and presidential elections.
Their success was odd, because the security establishment had for months been expressing concern about uncontrolled social media. There had even been several dry runs of DDoS attacks. Now we see Putin’s “legal” vendetta.
On July 10, the Duma passed a law to rein in the power of the Runet. The law will create a single registry of domain names, sites and web pages that contain objectionable material. Sites will be removed from the blacklist if they remove harmful information.
Supporters of the new law, mostly members of Putin’s United Russia Party, argue that it is aimed against child pornography and sites that promote drug use and suicide.
However, many Russians believe that the new law will help build a Russian equivalent of the Great Firewall of China. Russian Wikipedia blacked itself out for 24 hours in protest (as Wikipedia in the US did last January to oppose SOPA). Russian search engine Yandex and the country’s most popular social media platform, Vkontakte, also protested.
“We certainly support the intention of lawmakers to protect children online,” said Google Russia’s Alla Zabrovskaya. “However, we believe that the possible negative consequences of applying the law exceed the expected positive effect, jeopardizing users’ access to legal resources.”
“The Kremlezhuliki (Kremlin swindlers) realized that their paid commentators and an army of bots will not help them in their ideological struggle on the Internet,” commented anti-corruption blogger Alexsey Navalny on his LiveJournal page. “They want to create blacklists, and then ISPs will block a particular site without trial, simply on the orders of the ministry.”
The new law will come into effect on November 1, 2012. Interestingly, just days before passing it, the Duma also adopted a law declaring all non-profit organizations receiving funds from abroad as foreign agents, meaning that they must register and account for their activities. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instructed his deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, to report on the “political activities of NGOs.” He has also proposed an increase in government funding for Russian NGOs from one to three billion rubles to implement “meaningful social projects.”
So why pass laws to do what the Russian state can already do? It is Putin’s “legal” vendetta to squeeze democratic institutions and to suppress the power of the Runet in the name of the rule of law. Russians are reminded of who is boss and some foreigners may feign that they just do not see what is going on.