This year's report by Reporters Without Borders on World Day against Cyber Censorship condemns Russia as one of the "Enemies of the Internet." "Russia has adopted dangerous legislation governing the flow of news and information and freedom of expression online," it concludes.
Even though much of the Russian media is known to be under state control, the Internet has remained relatively free, with blogs and social media sites providing an important and creative platform for political discussion. But on March 4, the Kremlin once again took the media battle it has been waging against pro-Western protests online. Russia's Internet monitoring agency Roskomnadzor blocked 13 profiles associated with the Ukrainian protest movement on the popular Russian Facebook equivalent VKontakte because they "contained calls to commit terrorist acts and take part in unsanctioned mass action."
It's not the first time that content on social media sites and blog platforms has been temporarily blocked or blacklisted. But Russian legislators have made the job easier thanks to a new article, which came into force on February 1. It allows Roskomnadzor to block sites containing calls to extremism or mass unrest in the space of hours. It seems that the freedom of the Internet has been under attack in recent months through a series of measures that seem designed to rein in opposition bloggers and social media activists.
A far-reaching law
Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders Germany Christian Mihr agrees that the recent developments in Russia are worrying. "Any opposition opinions, any independent or critical opinion can now automatically be categorized as extremism - the Internet as a space which has really been relatively free in the past is being restricted in a more and more repressive way," he says.
The development is particularly threatening because, as Mihr points out "even reports about demonstrations" can count as extremist content, and can be blocked. In the past, Wikipedia, YouTube, Google, and Russia's most popular blog platform LiveJournal have been blocked, as has VKontakte.
In 'Kontakte' with the Kremlin
Since the end of January, VKontakte - which translates as "in contact" and is abbreviated as VK - is under new ownership. The site, which claims to have 60 million daily users, was founded in 2006 by Pavel Durov. The entrepreneur, who had a reputation for resisting state intervention on his site, has been under pressure to step down since the first anti-Kremlin protests on Bolotnaya Square took place in 2011. On January 24, Durov announced that he had sold the remaining 12-percent share he held to Ivan Tavrin, partner of pro-Putin oligarch Alisher Usmanov. However, Durov said his influence at VK would continue: "This change will hardly impact the governance of VKontakte. Its board of directors has been paying attention to my opinion - not because I own a stake, but because I created this network and
understand its deep mechanisms."
According to Mihr, VKontakte was already being heavily monitored before Durov sold his share of the company. "Even before, VKontakte was on Runet [the Russian Internet domain]," he said. "Runet has been subject to long-term and continued monitoring, which has, however, increased dramatically in the past year."
"But of course Pavel Durov was someone who resisted state intervention and who was intent on keeping VKontakte an independent company. So the sale probably has made surveillance easier for the security services - but we'll have to wait and see."
Well-known opposition blogger and journalist Vladimir Varfolomeev told DW, "Durov's ouster looks like a step preparing for censorship." Varfolomeev as also certain that online activists will be significantly affected by the new Internet laws. "The repressive laws passed in the last few years are dangerous for any type of free speech, be it in the media or in private blogs. My blogs and accounts on social media are unlikely to be an exception," he said.
With reports of human rights and environmentalist bloggers being arrested during the Olympic Games in Sochi, things are hardly looking up for online activists. But Mihr also thinks that "all this fits into a general panorama: since Vladimir Putin's return to power [in May 2012] repression has really increased dramatically."
Part of a trend
Indeed, these changes seem to be part of an overarching attempt to control not only the Internet, but also all independent media sources. At the end of last year, the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti - known for its relative neutrality - was shut down in a surprise decree by the Kremlin and became Russia Today. The critical voice of the television channel Dozhd has nearly been silenced as well. It was axed from cable providers in January and on February 4 its general director issued a statement saying the station would "remain alive for one month" before closing for financial reasons. Meanwhile, the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy saw its head replaced by an editor from state media in February, with a similar step taking place at news outlet Lenta.ru today (12.03.2013).
"As soon as those at the top take the relevant decision, any editorial team can be closed down that very second," said Varfolomeev, who also works as a journalist at Ekho Moskvy. "The authorities only have one goal: not to allow the protest mood to grow by stopping up the mouths of the regime's opponents."
The last bastion of free speech
Though the Internet is only part of the media crackdown, its importance in Russia cannot be overstated, Mihr explains. "Despite further restrictions, the Internet is still essentially the only place where opinions can be expressed freely, where there can be press freedom."
According to Susan Corke of independent watchdog Freedom House, social media outlets and blogs are "critically important" to Russia's civil society. "The massive turnout at Russia's protests in 2011-2012 was largely possible because of the organizational capacities of social media - VKontakte in particular," she says, before adding that blogging platforms like LiveJournal "are one of the most widely-used platforms for civil society activists to speak out without fear of censorship and without subjecting independent media to legal threats and possible closure."
Alternatives on the way?
Despite the serious threat posed by Putin's crackdown, Corke thinks that Russia's opposition is hard to stifle. "Russian activists are intrepid and creative individuals. I believe they will find new ways to organize and connect", she says, citing Telegram, a new mobile messenging service that VKontakte's Durov has created. "The more the government turns the screws, the more motivated people are and the more they have to protest against."
Blogger Varfolomeev is less optimistic. "For the majority of people in the Russian Federation, freedom of speech simply isn't a serious value. People aren't even outraged when they themselves are prevented from speaking out."