Kremlin Seeks To Extend Its Reach in Cyberspace
Sunday, October 28, 2007
MOSCOW -- After ignoring the Internet for years to focus on controlling traditional media such as television and newspapers, the Kremlin and its allies are turning their attention to cyberspace, which remains a haven for critical reporting and vibrant discussion in Russia's dwindling public sphere.
Allies of President Vladimir Putin are creating pro-government news and pop culture Web sites while purchasing some established online outlets known for independent journalism. They are nurturing a network of friendly bloggers ready to disseminate propaganda on command. And there is talk of creating a new Russian computer network -- one that would be separate from the Internet at large and, potentially, much easier for the authorities to control.
"The attractiveness of the Internet as a free platform for free people is already dimming," said Iosif Dzyaloshinsky, a mass media expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
Putin addressed the question of Internet censorship during a national call-in show broadcast live on radio and television this month. "In the Russian Federation, no control is being exercised over the World Wide Web, over the Russian segment of the Internet," Putin said. "I think that from the point of view of technological solutions, that would not make any sense.
"Naturally, in this sphere, as in other spheres, we should be thinking about adhering to Russian laws, about making sure that child pornography is not distributed, that financial crimes are not committed," he continued. "But that is a task for the law enforcement agencies. Total control and the work of the law enforcement agencies are two different things."
Many people here say they believe Putin didn't mind a free Internet as long as it had weak penetration in Russia. But with 25 percent of Russian adults now online, up from 8 percent in 2002, cyberspace has become an issue of increasing concern for the government.
Some Russian Internet experts say a turning point came in 2004, when blogs and uncensored online publications helped drive a popular uprising in Ukraine after a pro-Moscow candidate was declared the winner of a presidential election. Days of street protests in the capital, Kiev, led to a new vote that brought a pro-Western politician into the presidency.
Today, the Kremlin is ready with online forces of its own when street action begins.
On April 14, an opposition movement held a march in central Moscow that drew hundreds of people; police detained at least 170, including the leader of the march, chess star Garry Kasparov.
Pavel Danilin, a 30-year-old Putin supporter and blogger whose online icon is the fearsome robot of the "Terminator" movie, works for a political consulting company loyal to the Kremlin. He said he and his team, which included people from a youth movement called the Young Guard, quickly started blogging that day about a smaller, pro-Kremlin march held at the same time.
They linked to one another repeatedly and soon, Danilin said, posts about the pro-Kremlin march had crowded out all the items about the opposition march on the Yandex Web portal's coveted ranking of the top five Russian blog posts.
"We played it beautifully," Danilin said.