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Putins Brave New Russia

Published: February 19, 2014 (Issue # 1802)


Trouble, even when expected, can come at unexpected times. For many months, Russians have expected that authorities would begin to block Internet sites that publish opinions from opposition leaders, activists and supporters. But when a number of sites were blocked on the morning of Mar. 13, it was like a bolt out of the blue.

The Federal Mass Media Inspection Service blocked access to the website of the Ekho Moskvy radio, the online publications Ej.ru, Grani.ru and Kasparov.ru, the homepage of world chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. The legal justification was the so-called Lugovoi law, named after its author, State Duma Deputy Andrei Lugovoi. He is also the main suspect in the 2006 London murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko. Even if Lugovois guilt as a murderer has not been proven in court, there is no doubt that he is a killer of freedom on Russias Internet.

When a number of Internet sites were blocked on Mar. 13, it was like a bolt out of the blue.

This law entered into force on Feb. 1, during protests in Ukraine. The law allows the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service to block sites containing calls for unsanctioned acts of protest without a court injunction. As usual for repressive laws in Russia, it is applied rather loosely. The editors of Grani.ru were not told which of their hundreds of online pages contained calls for unsanctioned acts of protest, if there were any at all. It goes without saying that the Lugovoi law violates the Russian Constitution, where Article 29 strictly prohibits any censorship.

While similar to the Chinese approach, the Russian law is technically applied in a different way. China has its centralized great firewall. In Russia, individual providers block sites if they receive notice from the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service about a problem on their URL. This model is far from perfect. Some providers do not block access at all; others block some access. Online publishers can get around it easily by creating a mirror site that has a different URL. It is even easier for users to get around it by using proxy servers.

Since their technical means are somewhat limited, the authorities have begun to threaten sites with misdemeanors and felonies. Editors of blocked sites have been warned that they will be fined significant amounts for creating mirror sites. Alexei Navalny, the No. 1 critic of the regime has also been threatened. He is under house arrest, but his wife has continued posting on his blog. But Navalny has been warned that if his blog is not closed, house arrest might be changed to pretrial detention.

Attacks on Internet freedom have long been one of the trademarks of the Putin regime. Although the authorities monopolized most mainstream newspapers, radio and television, they lost the battle for the countrys minds on the Internet, where official propaganda is treated as a joke. For more than ten years, the Kremlin has tried in various ways to limit the possibility of free expression on the Internet. Hacker attacks on independent sites and blogs became the norm. Hundreds of trolls were paid to monitor forums and post nationalistic and xenophobic comments. Their aggressive comments in broken English can be found under many articles and comments on this newspapers website.

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