Cyberattacks try to silence Russian dissenters | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 06.12.2011
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Cyberattacks try to silence Russian dissenters

United Russia holds onto a slim majority amidst cyberattacks against Russian websites. Prominent dissident blogger Alexei Navalny was arrested as he was leading a Moscow rally late Monday night.

Alexei Navalny

Blogger Alexei Navalny was arrested late Monday in Moscow

Two days after parliamentary elections in Russia, incumbent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, has emerged with a narrow victory, but allegations of denial of service attacks have led to calls of foul play. Organizations critical of United Russia party say they came under sustained online attack during the parliamentary ballot over the weekend.

In addition, prominent online critics have been arrested, including Alexei Navalny, a well-known anti-corruption blogger. He was taken into custody late Monday night, as he was leading an unauthorized rally. After appearing before a Moscow court on Tuesday, on charges of obstructing traffic, he will likely face up to 15 days in prison.

One private online TV station in Russia dubbed Monday's rally the "Facebook Revolution."

"Nothing like this has ever happened before," said Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist, in an interview with the website, according to the Agence France Presse. "This all started with a few posts on Facebook and (blogging platform) LiveJournal."

Russian police

Russian police were out in full force on Monday and Tuesday

Both media outlets and election monitors have reported being hit with an overwhelming number of requests for data in an effort to knock them offline, and some of those affected are now saying the attacks against them were the work of state-sponsored criminals.

Among those to be hit was the website of Golos, the country's only independent election monitor, which was putting together a list of places where voters could report any irregularities they noticed.

Attacking regime critics

The radio station Ekho Moskvy, LiveJournal, a popular blogging platform, and the Moscow Echo newspaper also fell victim to cyber attack by hackers trying to keep them from reporting on the elections.

Using Twitter, Moscow Echo editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov said the attack on his paper's website on election day was "clearly an attempt to inhibit publication of information about violations."

Liliya Shibanova, the head of Golos, also tweeted that the denial of service attacks on her website had consisted of 50,000 hits per second, and had clearly been perpetrated by "a big organization with plenty of means."

Still the attack appeared not to be big enough to stop the registering of more than 5,000 complaints of ballot box fraud.

Keyboard and lock

A number of Russian websites came under attack in the aftermath of Sunday's election

New Russian government surveillance

The situation is likely to be repeated next year when Russians get to vote in presidential elections which are expected to see Vladimir Putin move back to his former office as president.

In the run-up to the presidential elections Russia's Federal Service for Telecom Supervision has been testing Internet monitoring devices that would search for so-called illegal web content. That officially includes anything that is considered threatening to the freedom and secrecy of choice during election times.

The timing of the launch of the Internet monitoring system isn't lost on many, as millions of Russians are taking to the Internet in an attempt to voice their frustrations against the regime.

Truth in fiction

Mr. Freeman, a black and white cartoon character who can be found all over the Russian-speaking Internet, represents the views of many Russians. In one clip, his giant soulless eyes are full of anger as he recites an open letter to the president.

"Dear Mr. President, for the past eight years, the country has been sinking," he says. "Russia preaches a dictatorship - those who seek legal justice are killed in prison. We're told that the gross domestic product is growing, but it's destroying free business. You promised to restore order but the country has plunged into darkness of the middles ages!"

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to become president again in March 2012

The president that Mr. Freeman is referring to is in fact Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, former president but ongoing authoritarian leader widely seen as the man who really runs Russia.

If he wins the presidential ballot, Putin could lead the country until 2024. Unsurprisingly, many Russians aren't so keen on having him back at the helm.

"Now Putin wants to come back? To ruin the country? Enough is enough! We don't want to endure another 12 years. We want law and order and freedom," Mr Freeman continues.

Speaking out online may not lead to actual change

Still, it seems highly unlikely that Russian activism online will do much in the face of stauch authoritarianism - the Russian government deployed thousands of police and soldiers onto the streets of Moscow on Monday and Tuesday.

"It's one thing to be sitting in front of your computer, or holding your cell phone or your twitter or what have you and read and admire witty authors who expose wrongdoings of the government," said Mascha Lipman, a political analyst with the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think-tank.

She says the fear portrayed by Mr. Freeman is real and widespread, and is making Russians bite the bullet and speak out against the regime, but she questions how much it really accomplishes.

"It's quite another matter to come together with your fellow men to actually do something to take to the streets and express your opinion," she told Deutsche Welle.

Reporter: Jessica Golloher, Moscow (AFP) / tkw
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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