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With Internet gaining wide influence in Russia, authorities seek to step up control over it

February 04, 2013, 15:59 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The more popularity and influence Internet is winning in Russia’s social life, the more vigorously the authorities seek to exert control over it. Some experts say they are shocked over ever toughening censorship. The majority of Russians however support this tendency.

The year 2012 was crucial for the Russian Internet segment: Runet made a swift progress into the very core of Russia’s socio-political life, having outstripped the state’s leading television channel. This is what analysts from the Agora human rights association wrote in their report entitled “Russia as a Global Threat to the Free Internet,” according to the electronic newspaper.

The authorities responded in abundant initiatives aiming to toughen control and administrative pressure on the web. So, it is only natural that not only Internet users but also Internet resources are fleeing the country. And as a result, Russia, which is seeking to impose “web sovereignty,” is becoming a global threat to the entire free Internet, human rights advocates claim.

According to Agora’s leader, Pavel Chikov, the association has founded the eLiberator project to monitor the authorities’ violations as concerns the web and provide recommendations to users.

The number of Internet restriction cases in Russia has been growing in geometric progression each year: whereas there were about 100 such cases in 2008, the year 2011 saw 500 such cases, and 2012 – more than 1,000, the human rights activist says.

Experts say the number of users of the Russian Internet segment increased by more than six million in the past year alone, having nearly reached 47 million. The bulk of the new users are people living in small towns and… seniors. The number of Runet domains by the end of 2012 was up by 500,000 on the autumn of 2011: there were more than five million domains registered in the three Russian zones .ru, .su, and рф in December 2012. The number of daily visitors of the Internet portal Yandex has surpassed the daily audience of Russia’s nationwide television Channel One.

At the same time, the year 2012 saw a mass exodus of the most active Internet users from Russia. Among them were a blogger from the republic of Karelia, Maxim Yefimov, known for his biting criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, and journalists Jenny Kurpen and Mikhail Maglov, who fled Russia for fear of prosecution.

The reason for that is growing pressure on the Internet from the authorities, the Agora report surmises. In 2012, there were far too many cases when Internet users were brought to criminal responsibility, many sites were blocked, and administrative pressure was toughened.

The number of criminal cases opened based on the Internet information almost tripled over the past year: from 38 in 2011 to 103 in 2012.

Administrative pressure on Internet resources also intensified: prosecution agencies and the federal oversight authority in the area of the mass media (Roscomnadzor) issued 208 warnings in 2012. In 2011, there were 173 such documents.

Apart from that, experts registered 124 cases of the use of censorship on the web. Among such cases, according to the human rights activists, were court rulings recognizing Internet information as extremist, Roscomnadzor demands to remove user comments from websites, and so on.

In 2012, the Russian authorities for the first time declared the idea that the Internet “is the biggest threat to the well-being and stability of the state,” experts note. “Regulation of relations in the Internet is beginning to dominate law-making practices and determine the political agenda,” the report says. Lawmakers passed a number of laws that have made the life of Internet users and site owners quite uneasy.

In the mean time, one of Russia’s regions has decided to impose Internet censorship in a trial run from February to April, the Izvestia newspaper writes, referring to Denis Davydov, the executive director of the Safe Internet League, the initiator of the experiment. Devydov however refused to say where exactly the Internet censorship would be imposed.

Internet users in this region will be free to access only web pages from the League’s “white list,” included in the databases of all operators. The League has already signed a corresponding agreement with the region’s governor and all the 29 Internet providers, who said they were ready to renew agreements with their subscribers.

According to Davydov, users will be free to decline the “neat” Internet. “If anyone wants to watch porno, scenes of violence and brutality, he or she will undertake all the risks,” he said.

Now, the “white list” has some 500,000 sites. It is supposed to be doubled in the span of the experiment.

The leader of Russia’s Pirate Party, Pavel Passudov, labeled the League’s project as “pure censorship.” “I am shocked. Such lists have reached Russia much sooner than I expected. I thought it would happen in some five years. I am appalled by the monopoly the “white list” making organization will enjoy. It is wrong. Such lists should be made by public organizations and state authorities,” he said.

In 2012, a law was passed in Russia imposing a single register of prohibited websites. No court ruling is needed to blacklist websites with child pornography, suicide and drug-making manuals. Some experts said such a register was meant to establish control over the Internet.

The majority of Russians however have no objections to off-court regulations of Internet information and say they are satisfied with the work of the register of prohibited websites, according to opinion polls conducted by the Public Opinion foundation.

Thus, as many as 54 percent of the polled said they had heard about such register. From among active users, a total of 77 percent said they knew about it. A total of 47 percent of those who heard about the register said they welcomed the move. As many as 43 percent of Russians and 44 percent of active Internet used said they had no objections against off-court bans of “some sort of information.” However, 23 percent of Russians and 29 percent of users said such bans should be imposed by court rulings.

Censorship opponents were quite few – 14 percent of Russians and 15 percent of Internet users. Notably, as many as 41 percent of users said they were ready to file complaints with Roscomnadzor over prohibited content.