On Thursday, April 24th 2014, the Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated at a media forum in St. Petersburg that “The Internet was a CIA project that is still developing as such”. The statement, however, was not made just to reference the Edward Snowden scandal that revealed some of the surveillance practices of the US government, and wasn’t only meant to summon political debate. It was related to the recent legislative initiatives from Kremlin: on Tuesday, April 22nd, the Duma has passed a law that tightens control on social networks and bloggers. In other words, companies that provide online message-transmitting services will have to collaborate with the Russian state communication institutions. Moreover, the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and Microsoft will be obliged to collaborate with Russian internet providers so that all the data flow is stored on servers that are located within the Russian territory. The information will be deleted only after 6 months of storage.
On the other hand, bloggers, website owners and personal social media pages are facing a new challenge: the online domains that are visited more than 3000 times/day should declare their family name and e-mail address to the authorities. If the content they publish is “libel, extremist and/or unauthentic”, then the online journalists face a first-time fine that can be as high as 1000$. Whilst the Western media regards these measures as an abuse that is meant to silence critics and trigger self-censorship among bloggers, Putin legitimizes the situation as a matter of national security and national interest.
In the same address, Putin has criticized the leading Russian search engine, Yandex, for being registered in the Netherlands “not only for tax reasons but for other considerations, too.” As the situation was presented, once a Russian online service stores information in a foreign territory, there is a threat to the national security. As a consequence, the stocks of Yandex have dropped 5% of their value at the opening of Nasdaq on Thursday. In response, the representatives of the search engine have made it clear that he company got registered in the Netherlands “solely due to the specifics of corporate law,” not because of the low taxes there and added that its core business is based in Russia and “practically all the taxes are paid in Russia.”
The preference of the Russian internet users seems to be quite peculiar in the eyes of the West, as besides Yandex replacing Google as the leading search engine, there is a social media platform that has more users than Facebook: VKontakte. It is alleged that the owners of VKontakte are in good relations with Vladimir Putin. Therefore, in theory, the government from Kremlin shouldn’t worry too much about the world’s most popular internet services. In practice however, the opposition is trying hard to raise awareness on the censorship of the new media channels and usually creates online events that call for protests – while it’s still legal.
According to the Freedom House report “Freedom of the Net” from 2013, Rusia is “Partially Free”, with 10 obstacles to access, 19 limits on content, and 25 violations of human rights. The report’s criteria include the 10 most common types of internet control:
1. Blocking and filtering
2. Cyber-attacks on regime critics
3. New laws and arrests for political, religious, or social speech online
4. Paid pro-government commentators manipulate online discussions
5. Physical attacks and murder
7. Take-down requests and forced deletion of content
8. Blanket blocking of social media and other ICT platforms
9. Holding intermediaries liable
10. Throttling or shutting down internet and mobile service
Whilst the battle of the administration from Kremlin with the “CIA Project” is still ongoing and more and more critics are silenced, it remains to be seen if the 2014 report will still feature the “Partially Free” label.