Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Internet Freedom in Vladimir Putin's Russia: The Noose Tightens

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Internet Freedom in Vladimir Putin's Russia: The Noose Tightens

Article excerpt

Key Points

* The Russian government is currently waging a campaign to gain complete control over the country's access to, and activity on, the Internet.

* Putin's measures particularly threaten grassroots antigovernment efforts and even propose a "kill switch" that would allow the government to shut down the Internet in Russia during government-defined disasters, including large-scale civil protests.

* Putin's campaign of oppression, censorship, regulation, and intimidation over online speech threatens the freedom of the Internet around the world.

Despite a long history of censoring traditional media, the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin for many years adopted a relatively liberal, hands-off approach to online speech and the Russian Internet. That began to change in early 2012, after online news sources and social media played a central role in efforts to organize protests following the parliamentary elections in December 2011. In this paper, I will detail the steps taken by the Russian government over the past three years to limit free speech online, prohibit the free flow of data, and undermine freedom of expression and information--the foundational values of the Internet.

The legislation discussed in this paper allows the government to place offending websites on a blacklist, shut down major anti-Kremlin news sites for erroneous violations, require the storage of user data and the monitoring of anonymous online money transfers, place limitations on bloggers and scan the network for sites containing specific keywords, prohibit the dissemination of material deemed "extremist," require all user information be stored on data servers within Russian borders, restrict the use of public Wi-Fi, and explore the possibility of a kill-switch mechanism that would allow the Russian government to temporarily shut off the Internet.

Changing Times for the Russian Internet

The Internet has, until recently, successfully avoided Putin's attention. Nikolay Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, stated in mid-2012: "Two months ago, Putin was saying that the Internet doesn't deserve any real attention, and that it's the place where pornography dominates." (1) At that point, the Internet was still a mostly deregulated and uncensored frontier for the Russian population to obtain information and share ideas. Since early 2012, however, the Russian government's attitude toward the Internet has shifted from a general indifference to an evolving cyberphobia. We have witnessed a government campaign to gain complete control over the Russian population's access to, and activity on, the Internet. (2)

Shortly after the parliamentary elections of December 2011, segments of the Russian population began voicing their disapproval of the election results, citing election rigging in favor of Putin's party, United Russia. On December 10, 2011, tens of thousands of disillusioned Russian citizens congregated in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow; two weeks later, the number of participants swelled to 100,000. (3) These protests were by far the largest antigovernment demonstrations to occur since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; previous protests had drawn at most 200 individuals. (4)

Social media--including Facebook, VKontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook), LiveJournal, and Twitter--was used as a medium to coordinate the times and locations of rallies and demonstrations while also facilitating the collection and distribution of funds that made the demonstrations possible. In addition, social media was an integral catalyst to the protests, as it allowed the Russian population to see electoral fraud and manipulation in favor of--and potentially orchestrated by--the party in power. Dozens of user-generated videos capturing electoral violations were posted online. Some videos depicted carousel voting, in which individuals were bussed between various polling places to cast votes in favor of United Russia under different names; other videos documented individuals stuffing stacks of ballots, already filled out with votes for United Russia, into ballot boxes. …

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