The Internet has proven instrumental in challenging the Kremlin and mobilizing demonstrators to rally in protest of voting irregularities and accusing the government of election fraud.
Some expect Moscow will tighten control of web media
With estimated tens of thousands taking to Moscow's streets in protest, the Internet has played a vital role in helping create a Russian protest movement since December 4 parliamentary elections that were marked by fraud.
"Without the Internet, there would have been no protests at all," said Russian blogger Alexander Plushev.
"These days it's enough to upload a video you've taken with your mobile phone to YouTube and to send friends a link. They send it on to others, it reaches bloggers and a mass audience," the Echo of Moscow radio journalist said.
That's precisely what took place during Russia's parliamentary elections. According to official results, the ruling United Russia party won an absolute majority of votes. Yet independent observers noted numerous irregularities, and inflated results for United Russia.
The Russian blogosphere still enjoys freedoms traditional media do not have
"For the first time in the history of elections in Russia, there weren't just reports of offenses, but the offenses were documented and made readily accessible," said Johann Bihr of Reporters Without Borders, referring to the independent Russian election observation organization Golos, which provided a website where citizens could post reports of abuse quickly and anonymously.
Russia's new media
Social networks serve as an instrument for mobilization. Over 30,000 Russians have announced their participation in the rally, showing that the Internet is no longer a marginal phenomenon in Russia.
According to a survey conducted by the polling center FOM, 48 percent of Russians are online. Of Russians 12 to 24 years in ago, some 90 percent said they regularly surfed the Net.
"Most traditional media in Russia are under state control, so that real political debates have shifted to the Internet," said Bihr.
In contrast to state-controlled media, he added that the Internet remains a "relatively free information space" in Russia, where "it's easy to find critical content."
A thorn in the Kremlin's side
Whether the Internet will remain so free in Russia remains to be seen. The Web has long been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin and Russian security authorities, and current protests against voting fraud in parliamentary elections could even strengthen the arguments for stricter state-imposed control.
Plushev doesn't expect Moscow to block Interent sites
"I would say that the Internet currently poses a big danger to the political elite in the Kremlin," said Florian Töpfl, a scholar at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University.
According to Töpfl, who studies the Internet's role in Russia, there are signs that Russian leaders have already recognized the danger. One high-ranking police authority suggested this week "reducing the anonymity of the Internet."
The suggestion stoked fears that Russian police want all Internet users registered - and prompted critique from human rights activists. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev responded to assuage fears, saying they were silly and that "no one plans on doing that."
Moscow is no Beijing
Yet there are discussions in Russia as to how long the Kremlin and the security authorities will continue to tolerate free Internet.
"Of course they will try to tighten the screws on," said Alexei Sochnev, editor of news website Besttoday.ru. "But it won't be so easy."
Sochnev said he does not think Moscow will gain the kind of control over Internet access that Beijing has.
Plushev of Echo of Moscow radio agreed.
"I think that many people in the Kremlin quite understand that that's a boundary that must not be crossed – as is the case in China," he said. Internet blocks would challenge Russia's G8 membership as well as its relationship with Western powers.
Hundreds have been arrested since protests began
Töpfl meanwhile said he sees Russian authorities taking a different path. Instead of blocking websites reports critical of the Kremlin could be stopped by simpler means as many Russian websites belong to state-owned firms or Kremlin-loyal business people.
All it would take is for the Kremlin "to give the reigns a light tug," he said.
Even in the digital age there is still an analog method to put a stop to protests: Since the beginning of the protests, hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested in Moscow alone, many of them bloggers and Internet activists.
Author: Roman Goncharenko / dl
Editor: Sean Sinico