Where did 180 Russian websites go?
Scores of websites have been blocked under Russia's restrictive new Internet law that's been in effect for the past two weeks. Is this the beginning of a wider crackdown on free speech?
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The head of Roskomnadzor, Alexander Zharov, told journalists this week that big Russian social networks are scrambling to cooperate with the agency, rather than face the possibility of being axed.Skip to next paragraph
Fred Weir has been the Monitor's Moscow correspondent, covering Russia and the former Soviet Union, since 1998.
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"The response from national social networking sites has been comprehensive and constructive, we have no problems with them," Mr. Zharov said.
That worries many opposition-minded Russians, who recall that the protest movement, which erupted last December over alleged electoral fraud was largely self-organized by citizens who communicated through social networks like Facebook and the Russian-language VKontakte.
"The criteria of this law are too vague, and the way we've seen it applied already gives us no grounds for optimism," says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer and member of the Solidarnost opposition group.
"There is no presumption of innocence, since the decision [to censor] can be taken without a court order. And there is no independent supervision over our law enforcement agencies ... It's clear that under these conditions, and with the prohibit-first approach that authorities are taking, mistakes will be commonplace and the field of freedom will narrow further," he says.
In a comprehensive analysis of the new law, security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan warn that Russian authorities are introducing DPI (deep packet inspection) technology, which creates the potential for unprecedented and total surveillance over all Internet activities.
"No Western democracy has yet implemented a dragnet black-box DPI surveillance system due to the crushing effect it would have on free speech and privacy," they quote Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, as saying. "DPI allows the state to peer into everyone’s internet traffic and read, copy, or even modify e-mails and webpages: We now know that such techniques were deployed in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. It can also compromise critical circumvention tools, tools that help citizens evade authoritarian internet controls in countries like Iran and China."
Experts also warn that the vastly expanded powers open new vistas for official coercion and corruption which, this being Russia, are almost certain to become part of daily practice.
"Imagine that some Internet business has a public forum, and somebody posts something 'offensive' there. It will immediately face the threat of closure," unless authorities are properly mollified, says Mr. Kozyrev.
"Basically, this law opens an enormous field for political pressure on one side, and corruption on the other. It combines an attack on freedom of thought with an assault on business. The situation is really alarming," he says.