Monday, March 22, 2010

Internet enemies" report raises controversy in Russia'

Internet enemies" report raises controversy in Russia'
by Gregory Asmolov

The degree of freedom in the Russian Internet is an issue for debates. Sometimes we might hear that in a discussion of the Internet Freedom Russia is be named in the same list with the "problematic countries" as China and Iran. Others, strongly oppose this kind of generalization, and claim that Russian Internet is the most liberal and unrestricted public sphere in Russia

The recent "Internet enemies" report [ENG] by "Reporters without Borders" tried to make order in regard to placement of Russia on the Internet of freedom scale. It placed Russia in the list of "Countries under surveillance". This placement and especially the justification for it by the report's authors raised discussion and disagreement in Russia.

The report states [ENG]:
After the takeover by the Kremlin of the audiovisual media early in the Putin era, the Internet became the freest space for discussion and information-sharing in Russia. Yet its dependence is threatened by blogger arrests and prosecutions, and the blocking of independent websites labeled as "extremist." The Web has also become a first-rate sphere of activity for government propaganda and could become a political control mechanism.
The reports names a long list of government affiliated activities that should be considered as limitation of Internet freedom. Among these facts and activities web surveillance system  "SORM-2", that makes possible to monitor online content for security agencies, the fact that some of major social media platforms were bought out by oligarchs with close ties to the government, the story of blocking oppositional websites by WIMAX Internet provider Yota, cyber attacks against liberal websites and persecutions against bloggers.

There are some more optimist statements. The report suggests that "The Internet has become a space in which people can denounce the corruption of Russian officials" . However, it concludes that despite this fact "the impact of these online mobilizations, blogs and new media on Russian society is still relatively limited" and warns that censorship in Runet might increase.

Radio "Liberty" website asked for opinion about Russian chapter of the "Internet enemies" report from few Russian experts. A famous blogger and journalist Oleg Kozyrev said [RUS] to Svoboda:
Мы живем в ситуации, когда любой блогер может стать участником уголовного дела. Но тотального преследования блогеров, конечно, сейчас в России нет. Есть просто эпизодические удары по некоторым гражданским активистам. Я бы разделил ситуацию с блогерами на два типа: собственно преследование государства - силами правоохранительных структур, провластных политических организаций. И когда блоггер подпадает под административные или уголовные правонарушения из-за того, что законодательство его надежно не защитило.
We live in reality, when every blogger might be a matter for criminal case. But, certainly, there is no total persecution of bloggers in Russia. There are episodic attacks on some of civil society activists. I would distinguish between two types of situations. First, persecution be government, the law enforcement of political forces that affiliated with government. Second, when blogger find himself under administrative or criminal persecution, since the law is not good enough to defend him.
`The executive director of "Social networks" agency Denis Terehov opposes [RUS] the idea of censorship in Runet:
О какой цензуре можно вести речь, если на сегодняшний день в Рунете есть 60 млн. аккаунтов сети в "Контакте", 50 млн. аккаунтов в "Одноклассниках" и 2 млн. дневников в "Лайф Джорнале". Кто кого контролирует? Кто кому не дает писать? Мы же не в Китае, где цензурируют "Гугл". Мы же не в Казахстане, где отключили "Лайф Джорнал". Никто никому не запрещает писать, объяснять свою позицию.
About what kind of censorship we can talk, if today in Runet we have 60 million accounts in "Vkontakte", 50 million accounts in "Odnoklasniki" and 2 million blogs in Livejournal. Who controls it? Who prevents to write anything from whom? We are not in China, where "Google" is censored. We are not in Kazahstan, where access to "Livejournal" is blocked. No one don't prohibit for anyone to share his opinion.
A head of "Freedom of Speech Protection Foundation" Aleksey Simonov, emphasizes [RUS] the difference between Russian traditional media as a space of self-censorship where editors and journalist know in advance what they not allowed to say, and the Internet:
Что касается Интернета, то там цензуры не может быть. Цензура - это предварительный просмотр перед публикацией. Но ведь невозможно предварительно посмотреть, например, блог, верно? Вопрос не в том, чтобы не дать этому выйти, а в том, чтобы наказать за то, что уже вышло. А это уже называется по-другому.
In regard to Internet, censorship can't work there. Censorship is a check before the publication. But you can't check a blog before it was published. The question is not about publication prevention, but the punishment that might come after the publication. And it has another name.
However, beyond the discussion if the Russian Internet is censored or not, the way that this claim was explained by the "Internet Enemies" report raised some debates and discussion.  Alexander Amzin, Internet expert for major Russian online news agency Lenta.ru wrote an article, which argued with most of facts that were included in the Russian chapter of the "Reporters without Borders" report.

Amzin writes [RUS]
Эти шесть страниц - самое удивительное собрание мифов и легенд Рунета последних нескольких лет.
These six pages is the most amazing collection of myths and legends about Runet, for last few years.
According to Amzin, some of the facts in the report are old news. For instance, SORM-2 system works since 2000 and there are no clear evidences that it caused any repressive actions. Moreover, Amzin reminds that most of countries have some systems for traffic monitoring. Other old news is purchasing of the Livejournal platform by Russian oligarch, who has some ties with Kremlin. There also no clear evidences that it had any impact on freedom of expression in Livejournal.

Amzin also reminds that the blocking of websites by Yota provider included governmental websites. He reminds that further development of this incident showed that this block was not censorship but a technical problem. The Lenta.ru expert points out that Vadim Charushev  who was confined against his will in a psychiatric hospital wasn't creator of Vkontakte social networks, as the report claims, but a social networking activist. Amzin also disagree with a claim that Russian law authorized the government to intercept Web data without a prior court order.

The most outrage of Amzin was raised by reports claim about a group called the "Brigade," that includes people who leave pro-government comments, while some of them doing it for money.
К сожалению, аналитикам "Репортеров без границ" никто не объяснил, что "бригада" является городской легендой Рунета. Говорят, что у всех популярных блогеров есть куратор в органах. Говорят, что все патриоты сидят на зарплате. Говорят, что власти специально организуют распределенные атаки на оппозиционные сервера. Все это слухи одного порядка, для критического анализа которых достаточно бритвы Хэнлона
Unfortunately, no one explained to experts from "Reporters without borders" that brigade is an urban legend of Runet. People says, that every popular blogger has a curator in security organizations. People say, that every patriot get salary. People say, that government organize DDoS attacks against oppositional websites. It all rumors from the same box. To approach it in a critical way you can just use the Hanlon's Razor («Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity» ).
Amzin also says that the claim that online mobilization is limited in Runet ignores the reality. However, there is one point the Russian expert agrees and gives compliments to the report:
Может создаться впечатление, что отчет состоит из одних ошибок. Это не так. Серьезная часть документа занимает ровно одну страницу. Там перечислены блогеры, которые за свои высказывания понесли уголовную ответственность или просто стали фигурантами уголовных дел. Блогеров действительно сажают, и это действительно очень плохо.
One can get an impression that the report includes only mistake. No. There is a serious part of this document that takes one page. It is a list of bloggers who were a subject for criminal prosecution for their opinion or were questioned within criminal cases. Indeed, bloggers go to jail and it's very bad.
The article by Amzin also raised a discussion among Runet users. Some of them claimed that Amzin himself demonstrates exaggerated patriotism and mentioned very recent stories that raised lack of confidence in Runet zone including shutting down of Torrents.ru and Ifolder.ru websites.  One can also recall the case of Yandex blog rating closure, that removed one of the most powerful platforms for alternative agenda setting in Runet.

One of the comments opposes [RUS] the claim that the "Brigade" is a myth:
Тролли есть. Все сайты где обсуждается наше родное дерьмо валят тупыми однотипными комментами с целью свести обсуждение на банальные оскорбления. И за это начисляется зарплата. И есть кураторы. Автор, Вы не из них? Истеричное выдергивание ошибок списка "врагов интернета" выдается как необъективность всего списка. Автор считает, что "Репортеры без границ" не в состоянии мониторить инфу про Рунет?
There is trolling phenomenon. All the online platforms for discussion of our ugly reality has the same stupid one type comment that aim to lead discussion toward banal insults. And they get salary for it. Ander they have curators. The author, may be you one of them? The hysterical attempt to list the entire mistake from the "Internet enemies" report is portrayed as a proof for lack of objectivity of the whole chapter. Does author believe that "Reporter without borders" are not able to monitor information about Runet?
The controversy around Russian chapter of "Internet enemies" report emphasizes the high degree of complexity of the reality in the Russian segment of the Internet. The questions of government's involvement nature, censorship and limiting freedom of speech have no a simple answer. The Runet have to be under surveillance. Including Russia in the list of countries that should raise concerns is certainly justified. But it also requires careful approach that can distinguish myth form facts, try to investigate the complexity, and avoid "black and white" approach that categorizes some of processes as evidences for repressive actions by government.

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