In 2010, as the Internet became an increasingly important medium of communication for Russians—indicated by a 40 percent spike in RuNet’s daily audience (RuMetrica) —the issue of freedom of expression online gained in prominence. Russians have begun to use the Internet more as a channel for political activism and mobilization. As evidenced by the efforts of Russian authorities to clamp down on cyberspace activity, the government finds the trend of online political activism unnerving.
The popularity of social media among Russians—the world’s most active social networkers according to Internet research firm Comscore—have increased citizens’ reliance on the Web, as well as shifted the government’s focus towards monitoring what the public is saying online.
Regional blocking serves as one major technique that the government and government-commissioned actors have used to control Internet content [ENG].
The Komsomolsk-on-Amur city court’s move in ordering Internet provider Rosnet to block YouTube last July is one of many examples of government efforts to curb freedom of expression online in 2010. The ban was prompted by YouTube's hosting of an ultra-nationalist video featuring “extremist” content. Although the court’s decision has been later overrun, the case illustrated the growing disturbance of online content by the regional authorities.
YouTube is not the only online service that has come under fire for featuring controversial content. In late July, a regional court in Ingushetia forced a local Internet service provider to block LiveJournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. And in August, the state-controlled local telecom operator temporarily blocked the website of Tulksiye Pryaniki, an independent regional news portal, that had published articles critical of regional authorities.
One notable attack was carried out [ENG] by a local provider in the city of Khimki against an environmentalist Web site ecmo.ru [RUS] in December. The provider discontinued user access to ecmo.ru because of the site's efforts to collect signatures for the dismissal of Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko.
Physical and virtual violence
In addition to censoring websites, threats of and actual violence have effectively challenged freedom of expression in Russia. The assault [ENG] on prominent Russian journalist and blogger Oleg Kashin on November 6 by unidentified people near his apartment in Moscow occurred when he was reporting on youth political movements and protests, as well as a controversial proposal to build a highway through the Khimki forest outside Moscow.
In August, Kemerovo governor Aman Tuleev filed a criminal case against [ENG] Alexander Sorokin, Russian blogger who had allegedly written a libelous post that compared Russian regional governors to Latin American dictators.
In November, Sasha Bragin [RUS], Ulyanovsk-based environmentalist and blogger, came under fire by Russian authorities who accused [ENG] him of running down a pedestrian, according to newspaper Novie Izvestia [RUS]. Bragin claimed that the car accident had been staged and that he had previously received threats [RUS] for his investigation.
Numerous cases have been raised in particular against neo-Nazis who have become increasingly vocal online. Vladimir Li'yurov, a forum commentator from the Komi Republic, has been given a 6-month suspended sentence [ENG], according to Sova-center [RUS] for publicly inciting hatred towards an ethnic group through his “anti-Semitic” comments on a local online media outlet. Li'yurov denied the accusations.
In 2010, LiveJournal, which is controlled by the company SUP and owned by Alisher Usmanov, an oligarch close to the Kremlin, attracted widespread public attention for suspending accounts of its users. For example, LiveJournal suspended [ENG] the account of Rakhat Aliev, a Kazakh opposition politician and former president Nazarbaev‘s son-in-law. Previously, Kazakhstan had blocked [ENG] the LiveJournal site itself to silence Aliev. LiveJournal also suspiciously closed an account of Russian opposition blogger pilgrim_67 who was forced to move to Blogspot [RUS] and lj.rossia.org [RUS]. Those cases serve as an evidence of the instability of LiveJournal – it currently hosts about 80 percent of the Russian political blogosphere – as platform for opposition bloggers.
Bloggers have been targets of not only account suspension, but also hacker attacks. Over the last five years, more than 40 RuNet bloggers [ENG] have become targets. This week, the blog of Valeria Novodvorskaya, liberal politician, has been hacked by the same hacker group called “The Brigade of Hell”. The hackers’ targets have been both political and commercial bloggers, and the assailants have received no punishment for defacing and deleting their victims’ content. Many believe that the group is commissioned, in part, by high-ranking government officials who seek to silence political bloggers.
According to Vladimir Pribylovski, a historian, political analyst, and principal investigator of hacker attacks on bloggers, Timofei Shevyakov, a lead analyst of the pro-Kremlin resource politonline.ru and former employee of the Foundation for Effective Politics, a pro-Kremlin think tank, is responsible for coordinating the group.
Controlling and removing content
Following the Manezh riots in December 11, 2010, RuNet witnessed a significant increase in attention [ENG] —a real turning point—to all nationalistic content. Popular Russian social networking site Vkontakte.ru stated that its moderators removed “dangerous” content in cooperation with Russian police and the FSB (Russian Security Service). Previously, the site had said that it was cooperating but did not specify to what extent or in what capacity. Currently, “special services” are monitoring [ENG] social networks and tracking the IP addresses of individuals who are recognized as inciting violence.
Previously, Vkontakte.ru had been spotted in content removal. After Raspadskaya coal mine explosion, Vkontakte.ru deleted [ENG] a commemoration group that had more than 6,000 members. In July, it closed and deleted the content of the “Antireligion” group (about 8,000 members) after the prosecutor’s office flagged it for featuring photos of t-shirts with „extremist” slogans, such as “Orthodoxy or Death.”
The Russian government has also blamed the Internet for civil disobedience and used it as an excise for its clampdown on online activism. Officials have declared the Internet a medium through which radical nationalists can manipulate crowds and cause social unrest like the Manezh riots.
Among other instances of crackdown on RuNet is one where a Russian blogger’s car was vandalized shortly after he had published a video on YouTube called “Our Mexican Bay,” which featured an oil spill that Russian authorities were ignoring.
Even though the Russian government has taken serious attempts to harness cyberspace activity among netizens, RuNet’s audience continues to expand, mobilize, and speak out on various issues. The government will probably find controlling freedom of expression online more and more difficult due not only to the public’s resilience, but also to the fact that significant abridgments of Internet freedom can stir local, regional, national, and even international debates, which could prove harmful to Russia’s reputation among the global community.