The Russian internet today

The first ‘.ru’ domain was registered twenty years ago. Russia’s internet (or RuNet) used to be one of the least regulated online spaces in the world, but it has come under increasingly heavy government scrutiny.

Daniel Kennedy
19 May 2014

Even before the Arab Spring, commentators were quick to assign the deciding role in any popular uprisings to social networks. Terms like ‘Facebook revolution’ and ‘networked revolution’ have been bandied about, to describe events as different as those in Egypt, Iran, and, most recently, Ukraine’s Euromaidan. It was an appealing, if triumphalist, narrative – simply give people the ability to communicate, self-organise and form alternative networks, and the inevitable march of history would see autocrats replaced with democrats, corruption replaced with good governance, and poverty replaced with prosperity.

The internet is certainly a valuable tool, but it cannot replace popular outrage or genuine civic commitment.

The truth was obviously not so simple. The series of revolutions the world has witnessed in the last few years have their roots in complex demographic, social and economic trends. While the internet may have played a role in getting people out of their homes and offices, to protest on Tahrir Square or Maidan Nezalezhnosti, it has proved less adept at fostering genuine democratic structures, than most optimists hoped. The internet is certainly a valuable tool for any would-be revolutionary, but it certainly cannot replace popular outrage or genuine civic commitment.

A Ukrainian protester receives an anonymous text noting they are 'registered in mass disorder'

A Ukrainian protester receives an anonymous text noting he has been 'registered in mass disorder' CC Mstyslav Chernov

How ironic then, that this simple narrative of the internet as the primary impetus behind revolutions, has been accepted by both liberal optimists and autocratic pessimists. When Hilary Clinton famously proclaimed the internet as a great tool for political and social change, she may have been trying to encourage bloggers and citizen activists, but others were also listening. When Vladimir Putin recently proclaimed that the internet began as a CIA project, he was merely articulating a suspicion that had been growing at the highest echelons of power in Russia since December 2011 – that the internet, unless properly controlled, was a direct threat to the state.


Until relatively recently, the RuNet was traditionally known, for better or worse, for its anarchic nature

Until relatively recently, the RuNet was traditionally known, for better or worse, for its anarchic nature; online piracy was accepted as a fact of life, and file-sharing was integrated into its most popular social network, VKontakte. This situation, however, was not without its dark side: child pornography proliferated, and Russia gained a reputation as a haven for cybercriminals.

But the benefit of a lack of state interest was a vibrant online media landscape and blogosphere. Television and, to a lesser extent, newspapers had to toe the government line, but the internet was almost entirely unfettered. Opposition figures like Aleksei Navalny made their names by skillfully using LiveJournal (which remains a popular blogging platform in Russia to this day) and Twitter to organise, focus and amplify popular resentment with government corruption.

Such a state of affairs was almost bound to end, and today the situation is very different. Hardly a week goes by that a new legal initiative isn’t proposed in the Duma to deal with perceived threats emanating from an online space that is at best viewed as dangerously chaotic, and at worst a Trojan horse of foreign meddling. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of Western security services’ monitoring of the internet have done little to dispel such views.

Slide from a PRISM powerpoint demonstrating how western IT companies provide the NSA with information

Details leaked about US online surveillance by Edward Snowden have done little to allay Russian officials' fears.

The RuNet has become a target for everybody: just this weekend, an official from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications ministry, nonchalantly spoke about blocking Twitter and Facebook ‘tomorrow.’ The Russian president recently accused one of Russia’s leading IT companies, the search engine Yandex of collaboration with foreign powers, and immediately knocked 5.5% off its market value; and a Russian senator earnestly proposesd creating a completely separate Russian internet that would ‘prevent information leaks,’ and proposes naming it after the popular Soviet cartoon character, Cheburashka. For many of Russia’s internet users, these proposals range from the chilling to the absurd, but if even a small fraction of them are introduced (and, perhaps more importantly, enforced), the consequences for Russia’s internet could be monumental, and it is almost certain they will not be good for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or unwarranted government surveillance.

Our series

This week on oDR, five authors examine the ways in which Russia’s government is grappling with the disruptive effects of the internet’s increasing popularity among its citizens. 

On Monday, 19 May 2014, Alexandra Kulikova takes us behind the scenes of the Russian government’s increasingly paranoid view of the online world, in which the state has the right to exercise its ‘digital sovereignty,’ and ‘information security’ is the paramount concern. 

On Tuesday, Kommersant journalist Vyacheslav Kozlov recounts the rise and fall of Russia’s online media landscape, and asks if there can be any serious future for independent media in Russia given the closure or taming of any publication that becomes too popular. 

Wednesday sees Damir Gainutdinov, a human rights lawyer from AGORA, look at some of the ways that civil society and industry groups have been fighting regulatory initiatives, which could constrain freedom of speech or other rights online. 

On Thursday, Russian investigative journalist Alexandra Garmazhapova looks at how the Kremlin has directly and indirectly set up its own internet army, happy to wage an information war on any group seen as threatening Russia’s interests.

On Friday, our series finishes with an account of one of the simple ways in which the internet can shift the balance of power between government and the governed, with an account by Bill Bowring of the online project Dissernet, which examines the university theses ‘authored’ by prominent and powerful Russian politicians, for what is euphemistically termed ‘improper attribution’ (ie plagiarism).

The 65 million

In the past, excessive optimism has characterised many commentators' views of the internet. Today, while we can see that the internet may not be enough by itself to end injustices, its values are increasingly invaluable: as a platform for free speech, as a tool for civil society activists to organise and galvanise; and as a means of uncovering information that powerful people might wish to conceal; all this is a powerful force many times greater than any communications system that has come before. 

Russia's government may have decided to impose a narrow view of state security over a free and open internet, but the economic and social costs that this course entails will likely end up only hampering the country's development. In the long-term, however, it will be up to Russia's 65m internet users to decide what kind of online space they want to have.  


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