Debates on the extend of freedom of expression online are almost as old as the Internet. But rapid development of RuNet in recent years has only stared testing the limits of what one can say online. The army of bloggers and their enthusiastic efforts to defend the online freedom paint an optimistic picture of the blogosphere's future.
One of the landmark cases of online freedom in Russia started rather slowly.
In September 2010, Pavel Safronov from the city of Syktyvkar (a.k.a. blogger onchoys) complained in his blog post [RUS] about the slow Internet speed and inaccessibility of Twitter and LiveJournal.com, a popular blogging platform in the country. Safronov connected this to the visit of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Syktyvkar and in frustration called him “pid…z,” an offensive Russian word that was originally used to indicate a homosexual male but it later became a common way to refer to any unpleasant person.
Originally, the blog post did not receive a lot of attention from Russian audience. Only a handful of Internet users viewed it and left comments.
What started to bring the post to wide public attention was a complain from Veronika Gorbachova, a leader of Russian youth group “Nemezida” and activist of quasi-oppositional party LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia). She was outraged by the degree of disrespect that Safronov showed to Vladimir Putin and asked authorities to bring the blogger to order.
Two months after the complaint, the regional prosecutor's office opened a case [RUS] against Safronov and the authorities immediately visited the blogger's apartment and the office of “Krasnoe Znamya” magazine where Safronov worked.
Yevgeny Chichvarkin (aka LJ-user chich8), Russian businessman in exile, who provided an extensive timeline of events [RUS] surrounding the case provided his explanation of the unusual rush of the regional authorities:
Такая невиданная скорость для удаленного от Москвы региона не может быть связана ни с чем, кроме как со звонком из Москвы. Приезжая в редакцию журнала “Красное знамя”, сотрудники Подразделения «К» МВД РФ должны были формально отрапортовать, что они среагировали в тот же день, но его не нашли. Так как Павел с ними давно знаком, и не находился в конфликте, этого вообще можно было и не делать.
One day later, the authorities confiscated Safronov's laptop and iPad from his office.
That is when the prominent Russian bloggers picked up the story and RuNet exploded with comments and re-posts leading to positive but unexpected end of the story.
One of the famous netizents navalny posted the story on his blog. Next day, impartial bots of Yandex.ru, the most popular search engine in Russia, automatically featured Safronov's original post under the section “Users now search.” Hours later, the management of Yandex.ru realized its “mistake” and removed this section from its web site leaving a blank white space where the section used to be. This awkward move to conceal the popular search topic only contributed to the frustration of bloggers.
Safronov published a semi-humorous letter [RUS] where he explained that he honestly believed that many people in Putin's team were homosexuals based on scandalous book by Alexander Korzhakov, head of Boris Yeltsin's security service, where he claimed that many members of “Yeltsin's team” had homosexual experience.
Another popular blogger tema featured a poll [RUS] asking users if they think that “*****” (he intentionally put several stars instead of Putin's name) is “pid…z.” The majority of readers answered that “*****” IS “pid…z”
Famous blogger teh-nomad asked the same question on his blog and other bloggers rushed to comment.
Aside from those mammoths of RuNet, the blogosphere can count hundreds of cases where “ordinary” bloggers referred to the spinning issue. The RuNet reaction was predictably homogenous: people supported anchoys and defended his right to say what he thinks about Vladimir Putin.
Apparently, the authorities could not bear this negative publicity any longer. Just a day after the issue hit the mainstream of the blogosphere, on December 23, the Russian Prosecutor's General Office issued a press release indicating the closure of the case against Safronov. The blogosphere proudly celebrated it well-deserved victory!
The case of onchoys showed the growing influence of RuNet and its direct effect on Russian authorities. Closing a case against someone because of the reaction on RuNet is not yet usual in the country but it rapidly becomes so.
The case also demonstrated the importance of popular bloggers who can easily promote a topic and make the audience aware of an issue that would have otherwise remained largely unnoticed.
Without any doubt, this success story will reassure netizens of the power of RuNet and will remind the Russian authorities containing the freedom of online expression can be much more challenging than they thought.