Putin’s “Legal” Vendetta

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.

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The Dark Side of Twitter

By Robert Griffith

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

By the time Enrique Peña Nieto is inaugurated as Mexico’s next president, the Twitter-bot techniques that marred the campaigning leading up to that country’s July 1 election will no doubt have spread to some other part of the globe. What country will next experience the dark side of Twitter?

With 465 million accounts—just under a quarter of them in the US—and 175 million Tweets a day, Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms. Millions of fans follow Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, but the human participants are sometimes crowded out by Twitter-bots—zombie accounts that send junk Tweets. And the zombies often have a political agenda.

Twitter-bots have haunted political activists from Morocco to Iran and particularly in Syria. Researchers following the #Syria hash-tag noticed two trends. First were “Twitter eggs,” mostly image-less Twitter accounts that verbally abused and threatened anyone tweeting in favor of the protests or criticizing the Bashar al-Assad regime. Second were spam-generating accounts that flooded the #Syria hash-tag with Tweets about various inane topics and threats against a long list of individuals who expressed support for the protests. #Syria and a few other hash-tags were inundated so that they became meaningless.

The Syrian Twitter-bots were followed in Russia and China. Twitter tactics similar to those employed in Syria were used to drown outanti-Putin protests in Russia. They where also used to drown out Free Tibet sentiments around the world. Junk Tweets hampered activists who were distributing vital information, limiting their effectiveness. Spam such as “Putin is my president” prevented researchers from monitoring developments.

Most recently, Twitter-bots zappedspam messages around Mexico during that country’s presidential and congressional election campaigns. Young, educated, urban and technologically savvy voters make up a quarter of the Mexican population. These voters are disproportionately political independents, forcing the main candidates to use social media effectively to compete for their support.

Apparently, that partly meant resorting to Twitter-bots. In his June 21 article entitledTwitter Mischief Plagues Mexico’s Election in Technology Review, Mike Orcutt writes, “The top contenders in Mexico’s presidential campaigns are engaged in a Twitter spam war, with armies of bots programmed to cast aspersions on opposing candidates and disrupt their social-media efforts.” Another objective of Twitter-bots is to make a topic appear so popular that it becomes atrending topic on twitter.

“For its part,” Orcutt continues, “Twitter clearly states that spamming is against the rules, citing 20 different examples of behavior it considers to be spamming.” However, such pronouncements do not seem to be having much effect. Consequently, Twitter is pursuing some of the top spammers in US courts.

Looking to the future, Orcutt writes, “This large-scale political spamming could foreshadow online antics that campaigners may increasingly resort to in other countries.”