Status: Partly Free
Obstacles to Access: 11 (0–25)
Limits on Content: 17 (0–35)
Violations of User Rights: 23 (0–40)
Total Score: 51 (0–100)
Since the internet was first launched in Russia in 1988, the country has made significant gains in the expansion of its information infrastructure. Most Russians access the internet from their homes (71 percent of users) and workplaces (41 percent), whereas only about 6 percent use cybercafés. 1 Internet access via mobile telephones and similar devices has gained popularity since 2006, and 10 percent of users currently report using this method. 2 The web is used primarily to check e-mail and for entertainment purposes, and only secondarily to read news reports and blogs.
After the elimination of independent television channels in 2000–01 and the tightening of press regulations, the internet became the last relatively uncensored platform for public debate and the expression of political opinions. There have not been any significant cases of technical blocking or filtering, but the authorities have increasingly engaged in intentional content removal. Internet freedom has corroded significantly in recent years, and this trend is borne out by the statistics: one internet activist killed, seven criminal cases launched against bloggers, one blogger badly beaten, and ten oppositional blogs attacked by hackers. The legal environment is threatened by a number of new legislative initiatives, and some have even proposed building a massive filtering and censorship apparatus in the mold of China’s infamous “Great Firewall.”
Obstacles to Access
Internet and mobile-phone penetration in Russia continues to grow, and the government largely supports the dissemination of these technologies. The number of internet users jumped from 1.5 million in 1999 to 29.8 million in 2008,3 although this still gives Russia a much lower penetration rate than that in Western Europe, and more than half of Russia’s users are concentrated in the two largest cities.4 Mobile use expanded even more rapidly, rising from a few million subscribers in the late 1990s to 187 million—about 35 million more than the country’s actual population—in 2007.5 The Russian mobile market in 2006 became the third largest in the world by subscribers and revenue, after China and the United States. A massive campaign to connect all Russian schools to the internet began in 2002. While the majority of the schools were connected by the end of 2008, the speed of the link is unacceptably slow at 128 kilobits per second; this connection is shared by a given school’s entire stock of 30 to 60 computers. 6 Although dial-up internet access costs roughly the same across the country, the prices for broadband access in the majority of Russia’s regions are four times higher than in Moscow.7 There are infrastructural limitations to internet access, but the government does not widely block access to the web or to specific web-based applications. The YouTube video-sharing platform, the social-networking site Facebook, and various international blog-hosting services are freely available.
Nearly 75 percent of Russian users still have dial-up. 8 The broadband market, which rose from 3.6 million users in 2006 to 8.3 million in 2008, is relatively liberalized. The state-owned provider SvyazInvest accounts for only 27.8 percent of broadband users, with the rest served by private companies. Many of those are regional companies affiliated with large national firms. As at the federal level, regional ownership usually depends on political connections and the tacit approval of regional authorities. Although this situation is not the direct result of legal or economic obstacles, it nonetheless reflects an element of corruption that is widespread in the telecommunications sector as well as other parts of the Russian economy.
Three leading operators—MTS, Vimpelcom, and MegaFon—hold 85 percent of the mobile-phone market.9 While formally independent, each of these firms has indirect ties to the government. According to independent analyst Vadim Gorshkov, MegaFon is connected with former minister of telecommunications Leonid Reyman, and MTS is linked to the Moscow regional leadership.10 The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is regulated by the Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications and Mass Communications, whose director is appointed by the prime minister. The appointment process is not transparent. Boris Boyarskov, the head of the service for four years until his replacement by a subordinate in December 2008, reportedly served in the KGB during the Soviet era.11 There are no special restrictions on opening cybercafés or starting internet service provider (ISP) businesses, although unfair competition and other such obstacles are not unusual in Russia.
Limits on Content
Legal controls on the internet were first proposed in 1996 by leftist members of parliament, though no action was taken at the time. Since then, however, the authorities have pursued various methods of censorship. In October 2008, a leading information-technology company official, Valentin Makarov, proposed building a Russian version of China’s so-called Great Firewall within the next 10 years.12 Until such a nationwide filtering apparatus is created, website operators and users can evade state interference fairly easily by utilizing foreign hosting services.
There has been only one well documented case of systematic blocking or filtering by ISPs, and it was later downplayed. The website affected, Kompromat.ru, was blocked by several providers in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.13 After the action became public, and the election was over, the filter was removed. However, the practice of exerting pressure by telephone is quite widespread. It is carried out not only by security agencies but also by Kremlin and regional administration officials, who call owners, shareholders, and anyone else in a position to remove unwanted material and ensure that the problem does not come up again. After receiving such calls, managers and editors are more likely to practice self-censorship. The director of leading hosting company Masterhost, Aleksandr Ovchinnikov, admitted that his company gets about 100 requests daily from the authorities to black out “inconvenient”—usually nationalistic or antigovernment—websites.14 Commenting on the Kompromat case, Ovchinnikov said the order to block the site was made “with a phone call.” A similar practice was used in the case of the website of the newspaper Vyatskii Nablyudatel, which was closed in April 2008 at the request of the Kirov regional police due to a forum comment criticizing the regional leadership. After the incident, the newspaper website moved to a foreign host to protect itself from further government threats.15
There is little evidence of intentional and illegal removal of blog posts. On the Livejournal blogging platform, for instance, posts have been removed only if they violated privacy rights (by including personal address details or other private data) or promoted terrorism. However, illegal content removals do occur. In March 2008, the website islam.boom.ru was closed because the prosecutor’s office said that it was spreading extremism.16 In October 2008, hosting service HostZona.ru closed the website Putin-loh.ru (“Putin is a dumbass”).17 The host’s director explained that the content of the website insulted the prime minister and it was his civic duty to close it down.
When the web was not such a popular phenomenon, the Kremlin was able to exert its influence with rather limited means, for example by forum trolling (in internet slang, a troll is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant, or off-topic messages in an online community) and establishing propaganda websites.18 The so-called Brigade, a pro-Kremlin group formed by paid bloggers and volunteers, is still active, but its influence declined as other users identified its members and began to ban trolls.
The situation started to change after the “color revolutions” in three former Soviet countries in 2003–05, when information technology played a significant role in mobilizing large numbers of people for political protests. In November 2007, Deputy Prosecutor General Ivan Sydoruk proposed increasing government control over the internet.19 The ruling United Russia party presented legislation in February 2008 that would require internet sites with over 1,000 visitors per day to register with the authorities, making them equivalent to print media with circulations of 1,000 or more copies, but the measure was not enacted.20 Many Russians view the internet as a proper sphere for governmental control. According to a Levada-Center poll taken in December 2006, some 22 percent would “absolutely agree” and another 22 percent would “rather agree” with the statement “It’s time to bring order to the internet.”21 However, the Kremlin is not unified on the issue. There have been constant tensions between social conservatives who express aspirations to overtly control the internet (the United Russia party, together with the influential “siloviki” faction, the Federal Security Service [FSB], and the prosectutor’s office) and centrists (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitri Medvedev, and current and former ministers of communications Igor Shchegolev and Leonid Reyman) who do not want to damage their international reputations with censorship scandals and prefer more sophisticated tools to control internet content.
Russia’s vibrant blogosphere includes over 3.8 million blogs.22 Approximately 80 percent of Russian-language bloggers live inside the country with the remaining 20 percent living outside in the large Russian diaspora.23 President Medvedev started a video blog in October 2007, and three regional governors followed suit.24 Unfortunately, blogs do not have a major influence on political life. This is due less to the apathy of Russian web users than to the government’s success in preventing online activism from spreading to the streets or reaching wider media audiences. Almost all large non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (based in Moscow and Saint Petersburg) have their own websites, but those based in the regions are less likely to have a presence online. Non-Russian-speaking ethnic groups are underrepresented on the web. There is little discussion of the Chechnya issue, as opposed to the leadership of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. During the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008, the Russian blogosphere, even its liberal elements, generally supported the Russian invasion.
Livejournal is the most popular blogging platform, accounting for 45 to 50 percent of all Russian-language blogs. This may be due to its adoption by a group of the Russian internet elite (Anton Nossik and Yuri Zasurski, among others). Other factors include the site’s “friendship” mechanism and the relative simplicity of the interface.
The Kremlin allegedly started to influence the blogosphere in 1999–2000 through just one organization, the Foundation on Effective Politics, led by Gleb Pavlovski.25 In 2006–08, the Russian internet experienced a proliferation of Kremlin-affiliated “content providers” that were essentially propaganda sites.26 Among the new net-propagandists were Konstantin Rykov and his New Media Stars,27 Vadim Gorshenin of Pravda.ru,28 and Aleksey Chesnakov of the Center for Political Conjuncture Research. Each of these media managers, according to prominent journalist Oleg Kashin, has a liaison on the president’s staff. The emergence of competing propagandist websites led to the establishment of a vast network of online propaganda that collectively dominates search results, among other effects.29
If an opposition or grassroots organization starts its own internet platform, Kremlin-related groups will launch several that are similar in form, if not in content. These sites create confusion among users by adopting similar imagery, slogans, and names. Meanwhile, bloggers who report on regional protests or some other sensitive incident are swamped by other blogs that give an opposite account, sometimes using sophisticated language but also resorting to obscenity to discourage debate.
The topics targeted with such tactics vary from region to region but often include political opposition, dissidents like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, murdered journalists, jobs and working conditions, and cases of international conflict or rivalry (with countries such as Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine, but also over U.S. and European foreign policies). The issue of spontaneous protests triggered by the economic crisis appears to be a growing concern.
The most successful civic action coordinated with the help of online forums and blogs was the movement against the restriction of right-hand-drive automobiles, which are imported from Japan and used widely in the Far East. Beginning in 2005, the organization Freedom of Choice (Svoboda Vybora) used forums to organize political action in different cities in Siberia.30 In addition to thwarting government attempts to discontinue the use of right-hand-drive cars, the group has taken up other issues important to motorists, including road quality, taxes, insurance rates, and special driving rules for senior government officials.
There is little information on the use of SMS, or text messaging, in political agitation. However, presidential staff used SMS in mobilizing people to participate in national elections in 2007.31 The same practice was used in several regional election campaigns.32 Certain mobile operators like Vimpelcom have stated that they prohibit political agitation through SMS. The use of political SMS messages is linked to other problems, including loose laws on commercial advertisements via SMS.33
As social-networking sites and blogger platforms have grown in importance, they have caught the attention not only of the Russian government but also of Russian business magnates, or oligarchs. Since they are eager to maintain good relations with the Kremlin, oligarchs are likely to resort to various nontransparent practices to ensure that their web services are free of objectionable material or activity. In December 2007, a day after the parliamentary elections, Livejournal was bought by the oligarch Aleksandr Mamut.34 Some journalists accused the new owners of leaking “closed” and “friends-only” entries to the police and the FSB. In December 2007, the creator of the most popular social-networking site, Odnoklassniki, publicly announced that his service refused to cooperate with the FSB.35 Although the veracity of his statement remains uncertain, it suggests that the FSB has pursued such cooperation. In June 2008, the Kremlin-affiliated oligarch Alisher Usmanov bought a 50 percent stake in Livejournal from Mamut.36 In July, Usmanov announced his purchase of significant stakes in Odnoklassniki and another social-networking site, Vkontakte.37
Violations of Users’ Rights
Since 2006, conditions for user rights in Russia have significantly worsened. Bloggers have become subject not only to hacker attacks but also to physical violence and legal prosecution. Although the constitution grants the right of free speech, there are no special laws protecting online modes of expression, and even constitutional guarantees are routinely violated. Online journalists do not possess the same rights as regular journalists unless they register their websites as mass media. Recent police practice has been to target online expression using Article 282 of the criminal code, which restricts extremism. The term is vaguely defined and includes xenophobia and incitement of hatred toward a social group.
Following the 2007 parliamentary elections, the government launched at least seven criminal cases against blog and forum writers. In the best-known case, 23-year-old blogger Savva Terentyev was convicted in July 2008 of denigrating the human dignity of a social group—the police—and sentenced to one year of probation.
The government’s technical capabilities in monitoring online activity have risen drastically in recent years. Since 2000, all ISPs have been obliged to install the “system for operational investigative measures,”38 or SORM-2, which gives the FSB and police access to internet traffic. The system is analogous to the Carnivore/DCS1000 software implemented by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and operates as a packet-sniffer which can analyze and log data passing over a digital network.39 However, no known cases of SORM-2 use have been reported. Legislation approved in April 2007 allows government services to intercept data traffic without a warrant,40 and in August 2008, the FSB announced the creation of a new portal to monitor the Russian internet and mass media. Little detailed information has been released on how the portal works, although the main aim of the project is the monitoring of public opinion.
Hacker attacks on opposition bloggers became a mass phenomenon in the summer of 2007, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. Ten popular bloggers were targeted by a group of hackers sponsored by Kremlin-affiliated political operatives. The blogs were ravaged and defaced. DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks became another powerful instrument of the Kremlin’s hidden influence. In May 2007, during a major public and diplomatic row with Estonia over the fate of a Soviet war memorial in the Estonian capital, numerous Estonian government and other websites were attacked, and few Kremlin-based internet-protocol addresses were spotted.41 A similar tactic was used during the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008, although the Georgian side also used DDoS attacks, combined with ISP filtering of the “.ru” country code.42 During the 2007 electoral campaign, the websites of three parties—the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS),43 Yabloko,44 and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)45—were attacked.
When there are no grounds for a criminal case, physical violence has been used against bloggers and online commentators. Citizen reporter and blogger Grigorii Belonuchkin was beaten after filing a voting-fraud lawsuit against a local electoral commission in April 2008.46 Well-known political activist Magomed Yevloyev, creator of the Ingushetia.ru website, was killed by personal security agents of Murat Zyazikov, the president of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, after being detained at the local airport.47 Zyazikov was dismissed two months later, but no criminal case was launched against him or his security personnel.
6 Industry experts’ opinion.
8 http://rumetrika.rambler.ru/publ/article_show.html?article=3542, accessed March 20, 2009.
9 “Russian Telecom Sector - Dynamic Growth in 2006,” Ezine @rticles, http://ezinearticles.com/?Russian-Telecom-Sector---Dynamic-Growth-in-2006&id=552086, accessed March 20, 2009.
11 RFERL Newsline, April 21, 2004, http://www.hri.org/news/balkans/rferl/2004/04-04-21.rferl.html, accessed March 20, 2009 and “Kremlin appears to be rattled by unrest,” St. Petersburg Times, December 16, 2008, http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=27850&highlight=boyarskov, accessed March 25, 2009.
12 http://www.cnews.ru/news/top/index.shtml?2008/10/24/324624, accessed March 20, 2009.
15 http://www.svobodanews.ru/Article/2008/04/23/20080423132141247.html, accessed March 20, 2009.
16 http://www.webplanet.ru/news/law/2008/03/07/islamboom.html, accessed March 20, 2009.
17 http://www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2008/10/09/61480.shtml, accessed March 20, 2009.
20 http://www.newsru.com/russia/11feb2008/websmi.html, accessed March 20, 2009.
22 http://download.yandex.ru/company/yandex_on_blogosphere_spring_2008.pdf, accessed March 20, 2009.
23 http://download.yandex.ru/company/yandex_on_blogosphere_spring_2008.pdf, accessed March 27, 2009.
26 http://www.openspace.ru/media/net/details/7946/page1/, accessed March 20, 2009.
28 Gorshenin’s projects include: yoki.ru, politonline.ru, electorat.info
38 http://www.iksmedia.ru/topics/analytical/effort/261924.html?__pv=1, more info on the SORM, http://www.sorm-li.ru/sorm2.html, accessed March 20, 2009.
39 http://www.protei.ru/company/pdf/publications/2007/2007-003.pdf, accessed March 20, 2009.
40 http://www.consultant.ru/online/base/?req=doc;base=LAW;n=83144, accessed December 2008.
43 http://www.kommersant.ru/doc-rss.aspx?DocsID=826114, accessed March 20, 2009.