Internet Freedom: Will Russia's Bloggers Survive Censorship Push?

By and

With so many of their media sources controlled by the state or government-friendly oligarchs, Russians have turned to their bloggers to keep informed and give voice to their grievances and concerns. But many of those in power are now seeking to impose rigid limits on online freedom.

Photo Gallery: Threatened Online Freedom in Russia Photos
DPA

One sunny June day in California, Rustem Adagamov was rushing without his glasses on when he literally ran into Russia's president. "I simply didn't see Dmitry Medvedev," Russia's most influential blogger says, "and I bumped right into him."

Adagamov, 48, uses his blog to report on a range of grievances, including the arrests of opposition members and "unparalleled police brutality." Each day, his blog gets around 600,000 page views, making it more widely read than many of Moscow's daily newspapers. Adagamov has even made fun of Medvedev on his blog by posting photographs of cups bearing the portraits of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the caption "They all lie anyway" printed in bold.

Acts like these make it all the more astonishing that Medvedev agreed to submit to an interview with the Kremlin critic. And that's not all: The president also invited Adagamov to accompany him to California for a meeting with Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple.

Medvedev, 44, is an avowed fan of the Internet, writes his own blog and uses Twitter. The president, for example, recently wrote an article -- entitled "Forward, Russia!" -- that garnered global attention for its ruthless analysis of Russia's economic backwardness. But instead of distributing it via a government newspaper or state-run television, he had it published on Gazeta.ru, Russia's best-known online newspaper. And, just last week, Medvedev halted a controversial highway construction project near Moscow via video blog.

Although Medvedev calls for "openness at all levels" from his government and Russian authorities, many among the country's power elite view this as taking things a bit too far -- especially when it comes to the Internet. Medvedev's own chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, recently called a meeting in response to a writer at Gazeta.ru who had laid into Putin and Medvedev because she was upset about how their motorcades were blocking traffic.

Russia at the IT Crossroads

The FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, wants to force Internet service providers to remove undesirable websites. A law also requires these providers to install hardware at their own expense that allows the FSB -- with a judge's authorization -- to keep track of the websites people visit and the e-mails they write.

Some service providers have even started proactively censoring users themselves. Companies such as Scartel, for example, block portals belonging to Kremlin critics, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

In this battle over the Internet, there are two camps. The issue is about the future course Russia will take and about how much freedom it will allow its 142 million citizens. Some believe Russia should take its cue from the liberal West. But others think it should follow more in the footsteps of authoritarian regimes like China, which is trying as hard as it can to control the Internet -- and, with it, its citizens.

For his part, Medvedev sees information technology as the "key to the development of democracy" and the Internet as the "most important resource" in reaching his primary goal: modernizing his massive nation.

Where Google Is Not King

Russia's Internet companies have been playing a prominent role in this process. They've been able to stave off foreign competition so far and, lately, they've even started expanding into the West. This April, the investment company Digital Sky Technologies (DST) -- owned by start-up investor Yuri Milner and gas and metal magnate Alisher Usmanov -- increased its share in Facebook to 10 percent and purchased the ICQ instant-messaging system from the American company AOL for $188 million (€148 million). ICQ has over 40 million active users, many of whom are in the West.

Hammocks and bowls of fresh fruit lend a touch of Silicon Valley to the open-plan offices of Yandex, Russia's champion among search engines. "We respect Google," says Yelena Kolmanovskaya, who co-founded the company 13 years ago, "but we're simply better." Today, Yandex has more than 2,000 employees and controls around 65 percent of the Russian market. Likewise, no other search engine in the world is growing faster. Google, which controls around 70 percent of the global market, is stagnating in Russia at a meager 22 percent.

Sixty million Russians now regularly surf online, an increase of 15 million over last year. For many, the Internet serves as a release valve, a place where members of this well-educated but overly controlled society can let off some steam. Likewise, nearly 50 percent of Internet users in Moscow have a blog, as do 7.5 million people throughout the country -- a figure nearly double what it was a year ago.

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1. Free press is like life, you are alive or you are dead, there is nothing in between
Norberto_Tyr 09/02/2010
Free press is like life, you are alive or you are dead, there is nothing in between; we can say that it is atomic, indivisible, not like our current comically and infinitely divisible ‘a atoms’ which are within our scientists’ bad dreams realm as Schopenhauer correctly said (I believe): “as far as I am concerned atoms can be as big as bulls, how come we cannot divide them?”). Well, as far as I am concerned, contrary to atoms we cannot have electrons and protons and so forth out of free press, we have it or not. One aspect spellbinding me due to its blatant incongruity is the fact that in the region we incorrectly call ‘west’ we are incredibly prickly about government censorship but, strangely enough, we are extremely condescend with private censorship. For instance, if we write or speak something and the government attempts to shush US everyone start jumping up and down on their sits, others start cursing and proffering Biblical vendettas swearing and spitting foam from their mouths with the eyes popping out like boiled eggs, other eat grass on their four like the Cid Campeador et cetera; but if a PRIVATE institution takes the liberty of censoring at leisure, none says ‘pip’, that is OK. Well, in my view this is absurd, I understand that if the message in question is anonymous, yes, there is a publisher’s duty not to publish it, but if this is not the case, the responsibility falls on the author, therefore I find this article a bit hypocritical since I do not distinguish between public or private censorship, even more, I would say that private censorship is worse because it cannot be traced back to a person responsible if it is a public or anonymous company (I mean the owner, not the editor), whereas with governments we all know where the buck stops, at the end of the day it is either Medvedev or Putin or both. I find this dichotomy rather hypocritical. Norberto
2. Free for a price.
verbatim128 09/05/2010
Zitat von sysopWith so many of their media sources controlled by the state or government-friendly oligarchs, Russians have turned to their bloggers to keep informed and give voice to their grievances and concerns. But many of those in power are now seeking to impose rigid limits on online freedom. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,714848,00.html
I find it ironic, though not entirely amusing, what kind of a high horse we are riding in the West every time that we discuss any "freedom" in light of Russia's stubborn insistence to follow its own path to democracy, as tortuous as that may be. How quick we are to point at their failings, real and/or perceived, present or speculated to be imminent. This article provides much more information about who owns what of the Russian Internet than even a modest attempt to answer the rhetorical question in the headline. Censorship push being at issue, over bloggers freedom to use the internet to express their opinions. Perhaps there is such a trend, but why not leave it up to the Russians to counter it? If it is visible at all. Much closer to the naked eye, so to speak, I have carefully red on this online news medium several articles about Mr. Sarrazin's provocative statements which are going to cost him his position on the Bundesbank Board. He wrote a book which he was "free" to publish, he was not "censored" in expressing his opinions in interviews with news media, yet he was relieved from his position clearly as a result of political pressure. Freedom of speech? The accounts of this whole episode could hardly mention "hate" once or twice, never making a lucid argument that it existed--the furore over the genes of Jews and Basques notwithstanding-- yet, and this is only a rhetorical question: Is Mr. Sarrazin's freedom of speech punished in Germany?
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