Russia hears an argument for Web freedom

October 28, 2011

Alec Ross, America’s digital diplomat, was here Friday to talk up the benefits of Internet freedom, even as Russia looks increasingly askance at the potential for disruption that the Web and social media embody.

What the Internet is changing is the exercise and accumulation of power, said Ross, a former Baltimore public school teacher and the State Department’s senior adviser on innovation. It’s inevitable, he said.

But that change is precisely what the Russian government — based on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “vertical of power” — sees as a problem.

The Internet here is relatively unrestrained. But since the onset of the Arab Spring, the government has been making more noise about bringing it under control. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, consisting of Russia and six other former Soviet republics, announced last month that it would begin monitoring social media. One member, Belarus, said it was considering restrictions.

Also last month, Russia, China and Tajikistan proposed a United Nations convention on information security. They called on member states to curb “dissemination of information which incites terrorism, secessionism, extremism or undermines other countries’ political, economic and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment.”

China, which already exercises considerable control over the Web, is moving to restrict micro­blogs that have been hospitable to whistleblowers.

And this week, in Cyprus, a Russian organization called the International Academy of Television and Radio held a conference on ways the traditional news media can assist the struggle against Internet “terrorism.” In Russian parlance, that’s a term sweeping enough to encompass al-Qaeda recruitment videos, hacking of military computers — and tweets from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Ross spoke Friday with government officials as well as students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. The U.N. proposal, he said, was not on his agenda, although this week another State Department official labeled it “not a good idea.” The United States, he said, would address that in a different forum. He came here to tout the economic benefits of a free Internet.

A robust economic Internet, he said, cannot exist without a political Internet. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called it the “dictator’s dilemma”: the notion that economic creativity and progress depend on Web freedoms.

If the great struggles of the 20th century were between left and right, he said, the conflict of the 21st century will be between open and closed. “The president and the secretary of state have made it clear where they stand on this,” he said. “For openness, with an open Internet at its core.”

The Internet is putting power in the hands of people at the expense of hierarchies and nation-states, he said. That’s not necessarily good or bad, but it’s unstoppable, he said. “It’s like gravity.”

Nonetheless, suspicions persist here that the West is using social media to promote and direct revolutions. Facebook and Twitter, according to this view, become agents of cyberterrorism.

“I don’t believe in Twitter revolutions,” Ross said while speaking to the students. Governments were overturned in Tunisia and Egypt by people, he said, not by apps, iPhones or broadband.

Russia’s interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, disagrees. He has called for surveillance of the Internet to make sure Russian young people don’t drift toward “extremism” — which, like cyber­terrorism, is a concept the government defines broadly. News organizations that have reported on extremism have been prosecuted for advocating it.

The prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, says the government should take control of the Internet — to defend Russians’ freedom.

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