You’d better watch out, Internet. Vladimir Putin is coming for you.
He has hated the Internet since at least 2010. That year, after allegations of corruption surfaced online, Putin delivered an impassioned screed against the Internet. He denied ever using the medium himself and expressed bafflement at why Russians seemed so keen on it. “On the Internet, 50 percent is porn material,” he confided. “Why should we refer to the Internet?” He then laid out this simile: “A political system shouldn’t wobble like liquid jelly every time it’s touched.”
But later, in 2012, as he campaigned to reclaim the presidency, he unveiled “Website Vladimir Putin.” The page showed, among other things, pictures of Putin fishing, rafting in a power boat, taming what appears to be a tiger, playing hockey, driving small cars and stretching in his judo outfit. Some Russians, according to Radio Free Europe, weren’t as enthralled with Putin’s many interests as he.
“Please leave politics,” begged one man identified as Andrei Antonenko in a comment posted on Website Vladimir Putin. “We understand that power is like a drug, but this would be a dignified act.” Another commenter, Mikhail Meshkov, pleaded: “A lot of my friends are thinking about leaving Russia. Do you need this? Do we? I don’t. I want to live in a normal country. So get out before it’s too late.”
The observations were immediately removed, Radio Free Europe reports, and replaced with statements praising Putin and calling on him to “impose censorship.”
One opposition leader named Alexei Navalny said: “Vladimir Putin and his team do not understand the Internet.” But according to Putin’s musings on Thursday, that conclusion couldn’t be more wrong. Putin has the Internet figured out. Speaking at a media event in St. Petersburg, Putin called the Internet a “CIA project,” which “is still developing as such.” To combat it, Putin said Russia must “fight for its interests” online.
Little, however, fuels a Web mob like attacks from state leaders. Just ask Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is still waging his own personal campaign against Twitter, after several high-profile backfires. “Twitter now toes the line!” one of his officials declared last weekend after Twitter blocked two accounts that had leaked recordings showing alleged corruption. Or consider China, which has stoked outrage over its recent war on Internet porn. Indeed, like other state leaders before, Putin took a drubbing online over his nascent CIA-internet hypothesis.
Vlado Putin called the Internet a CIA project – Russia is going back to ‘stone age’ with this idiot at the wheel pic.twitter.com/SM11K20WUM
— Jozef (@jzalik) April 24, 2014
The comment, however, represents just the latest move Putin has taken against the Web since he was reelected Russia’s president. Although rarely as publicly as he did Thursday, Putin has methodically out-muscled some of the Internet’s strongest Russian voices with censorship, legislation and intimidation. The year Putin took back the Kremlin, this Freedom House study referred to the Internet in Russia as “the last relatively uncensored platform for public debate.” This assessment, however, was something Putin evidently could not abide.
In the months following, the government sued and fined three Internet service providers, according to the Ria Novosti news agency. Then, the government blacklisted Russia’s Facebook, VKontakte. Putin backed off the banning, saying it had been an accident. “This was a mistake,” he explained. “Our employee put a tick in the wrong place.” By October 2013, Russia’s Internet ranking by Freedom House had dropped 10 spots — placing it between Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
But Putin was only getting started. The Russia State Duma adopted on Tuesday new legislation aimed at “Internet users called bloggers.” Any blog that clocks more than 3,000 daily visitors must now register with the state body for media oversight. Those blogs now need to verify information for accuracy and will be held accountable for any third-party comment posted on their sites or social media.
Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, announced he had been fired from his job as CEO and that the social network is now under “full control” of oligarchs belonging to Putin’s inner circle. Durov then fled the country.
Thursday, Putin was still complaining about the Internet. Beyond voicing concerns over alleged CIA involvement, he also took aim at Yandex, a search engine that’s bigger in Russia than Google. He complained that the company was registered in the Netherlands “not only for tax reasons but for other considerations, too.”
After Putin was done lambasting all things Internet, Russian tech stocks did this:
— Nate Schenkkan (@nateschenkkan) April 24, 2014