Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Internet and Democratization: The Development of Russian Internet Policy

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Internet and Democratization: The Development of Russian Internet Policy

Article excerpt

The survival of Russia's hybrid postcommunist regime, first under President Boris Yeltsin and then under President Vladimir Putin, poses difficult challenges for students of democratization. One of these challenges is exploring how regimes such as the Russian one resist both consolidation of democracy and a return to full-blown authoritarianism. The development of the Russian Internet policy is of special interest, as it brings forth two interesting puzzles related to this process: (1) Can governments of countries in political transition such as Putin's Russia allow for more freedom to increase their political control? and (2) Can we identify a learning process that a government such as Putin's undertakes on its transition path? The evidence presented here shows that the answer to both questions is "yes."

This article challenges the assumption that proliferation of Internet technology in transition countries such as Russia will lead to an increase in freedom of speech and further democratization. (1) It does so by identifying a method by which a government in transition cannot restrict or control the Internet directly but instead can use it actively to stifle political freedom. In this respect, the case of the Russian Federation is a first. It shows the problems created by governments learning how to appropriate the benefits of the information technology (IT) revolution to increase their control over the public information space.

In virtue of its unique architecture and its speed of proliferation, the Internet should hold a potential to liberalize the information space and subsequently lead to democratization, especially in states where governments tightly control traditional media such as the newspapers, radio, and television. (2) Although in developed democracies the Internet is seen as a means to develop a more informed, pluralistic, and participatory electorate, the contribution of the Internet in authoritarian and democratizing states is more basic. The focus in this article is on the potential of the Internet to liberalize the information space, weaken the political control of all authoritarian government, and increase both individual freedom in the short run and the hope of democracy in the long run.

Although estimates indicate that Russia has experienced a marked growth of Internet use (figure 1), this coincided with a drop in both political rights and civil liberties, as measured by Freedom House (FH) in the 1995-2003 period. Figure 2 shows that Russia performed below the world average in FH scores, and the marked decrease of freedoms in Russia contradicts the initial expectations of liberalization and democratization following the dissolution of the Soviet propaganda apparatus and the turbulent relationship of President Yeltsin with the emerging free media.

[FIGURE 1-2 OMITTED]

While freedoms in Russia markedly decline, the Russian government is aggressively targeting Internet development. The number of Russians online has just surpassed the 10 percent mark and, as early as 2002, the government announced a plan to invest $2.6 billion in the IT industry. To comply with demands of the World Trade Organization, the Russian Duma passed the Law On Electronic Signatures, which was the first law exclusively targeting Internet use. At the beginning of 2004, the new Law on Communications put into power new attempts to restructure the telecommunications market.

However, the aggressive measures to promote further Internet development are only the most recent stage of Russian Internet policy.

The initial stage of Internet proliferation in Russia was handled by an unprepared government that dealt with the new medium in the ways similar to those that its Soviet predecessor dealt with national media and technology regulation. The government's first-round response also included attempts at direct censorship of the Internet, but the general assumption about the inherent democratic nature of the Internet architecture proved true: Internet use in Russia escaped tight regulation, as the government was initially unprepared for the challenge. …

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