Earlier this week, Russian media outlets got a sneak peek [ru] at an upcoming report on the foreign penetration of the Russian Internet and the potential manipulation of the country's future elections. The research belongs to the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, an organization that has yet to release publicly the actual report or even create its own website.
The Foundation isn't exactly wanting for attention, however, as its creator is none other than Konstantin Kostin [ru], the former deputy head of internal politics under President Dmitri Medvedev.
In a June 2012 article [ru], Kommersant reporters Elizaveta Surnacheva and Aleksandr Gabuev speculated that Kostin's new outfit was one of several contenders to fill the void left by the Foundation for Effective Politics, a think tank managed by Gleb Pavlovsky, who was booted out of the Kremlin's inner circle in April 2011 (apparently for betraying the spirit of Putin-Medvedev tandem unity).
In a July 2012 interview [ru] with Expert magazine, Kostin foreshadowed the results of the report now making headlines:
Наконец, мы будем вести медийные исследования, потому что развитие медиа сильнее всего влияет на демократические институты.
Finally, we're going to conduct media research because the development of the media influences democratic institutions most of all.
Judging by such early descriptions of the research, Kostin's group seems to have delivered just what he wanted. The report, titled “The RuNet Today,” is divided into three sections: “The New Face of the RuNet,” “Most Recent Trends,” and “Conclusions.”
The research begins by noting demographic changes in Russian Internet usage, observing that the country now has over 53 million users — more than 43 million of whom access the Web on a daily basis. In another significant shift, polls indicate that popular faith in the Internet as a source of news is on the rise, and indeed on track to rival the influence of television itself within the decade.
The report sprouts controversy when it addresses ownership patterns in the Russian Internet industry. Fifteen of the nation's top twenty websites, the document points out, are connected to foreign capital in some fundamental way.
For instance, the ownership of Mail.ru Group (which controls not only the popular service Mail.ru, but also Odnoklassniki and a large share in Vkontakte), is scattered across the globe: a third belongs to a South African media company, another third floats as depository receipts being traded on the London Stock Exchange, and another 7.8% is owned from China. Yandex, Russia's homegrown Google and leading search engine, is officially registered in The Hague, and Vkontakte.ru, the country's dominant social network, recently fled the national domain for a new international home at vk.com.
Russian Internet companies are in turn suffocated by America's ever growing digital hegemony, today manifested in those ubiquitous social networks: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and Wikipedia.
This grim picture of Russian ICT vulnerabilities is exacerbated by demographic trends in RuNet usage. In other words, the Internet's growing popularity is transforming it into a political weapon capable of influencing the course of Russian democracy. That weapon is increasingly guarded by American, albeit private, media firms. These are the same online services, the research dutifully points out, that played a pivotal role in mobilizing the protests of the “Arab Spring” and Russia's “Winter of Discontent” beginning last year.
Reactions to the report, which presents no formal policy recommendations, have been unsurprisingly negative across much of the RuNet blogosphere and electronic media. Writing in Kommersant, oppositionist blogger and journalist Oleg Kashin tried to downplay the significance of the research, joking [ru] that Kremlin-sponsored political science projects are nothing but a way to funnel trinkets and rewards to sycophantic Putin loyalists.
Stanislav Apetian, one of the report's chief authors [ru] and an infamous anti-opposition blogger, took issue with Kashin's response, calling attention to that fact that Kashin himself is a former columnist for “Reaktsiia,” a journal also founded by Kostin.
Ekaterina Vinokurova of Gazeta.ru, another opposition-leaning newspaper, published comments [ru] from Vasily Gatov, vice president of the Guild of Periodical Press Publishers. He acknowledged the dramatic demographic shifts in Russian Internet usage, but rejected the report's forecast that Facebook or Twitter could soon dominate information in Russian political contests:
[О]днако задают ли они повестку дня – вопрос, на который нет ответа. Что касается связи происхождения владельца платформы с направленностью дискурса в социальной сети – это точно то же самое, как винить Галилео Галилея в том, что у Сатурна есть кольца лишь потому, что он первым их увидел в телескоп
[B]ut to ask if [social networks] set the agenda of the day on a political level is to pose a question without an answer. Regarding the connection between the base of these platforms’ owners and the resulting discourse in the social networks, it's precisely the same as blaming Galileo for the fact that Saturn has rings simply because he was the first one to view it through a telescope.
Political scientist Maksim Zharov thought it ironic [ru] that the anyone would suddenly consider Russia's envelopment in foreign Internet technologies to be a national security threat. Russians, after all, “didn't invent the Internet,” and its most spectacular social network, Vkontakte, is little more than a Facebook clone. (Though Zharov doesn't mention it, your author is compelled to add that Vkontakte is distinguished by its massive repositories of pirated music, films, and pornography.)
What might be the consequences of this new research? Panicked opponents fear that the report's conclusions imply an imminent need to censor the RuNet. But the Kremlin's modern efforts to thwart popular unrest have so far tolerated a fairly free and open Internet. Indeed, the “counter-movement” is more than a decade old, dating back at least to the “color revolutions” that swept Soviet apparatchik governments from Georgia and Ukraine (replacing them with newer, better polished crooks, many would say).
In the aftermath of last winter's street demonstrations, many sympathetic to the protesters (not to mention Internet entrepreneurs concerned about the openness of their industry) came to believe that online technologies are at last evening the playing field for social movements in semi-authoritarian Russia.
The disintegration of last winter's popular spontaneity, however, has washed away the sands of revolutionary potential. As the nation's remaining dissidents lie on their backs, looking up from that beach, the thought occurs: will the deathblow come now, or would it even be worth it? In other words, will the authorities seek to close off the RuNet, in the anticipation that it threatens to empower their enemies in the future? Or is the Kremlin sufficiently self-confident that it might mothball the Kostin Report, perhaps dusting it off occasionally for a bit of routine saber-rattling?
Only time, of course, will tell.