Civil Liberties

Putin Takes to the Internet

Russia's censors take aim at critical websites.


Russian President Vladimir Putin's steady rollback of hard-won press freedoms has entered a new stage. Not content with suppressing television, radio, and newspapers, the long arm of the state is reaching for political websites.

In March, Putin signed a decree merging two existing federal agencies—one for media oversight and the protection of culture, the other for telecommunications monitoring—into a single body, the Federal Service for the Oversight of Mass Communications and Protection of Cultural Heritage. It is perhaps no accident that the Russian word for "oversight" used in the agency's name, nadzor, has a somewhat sinister ring for a Russian speaker: It commonly refers to the supervision of a prisoner. The new agency, which will start its work in about three months, will oversee and license broadcasters, the print media, and websites.

Russian journalists have expressed strong concerns about this move, which they see as consolidating government control over the media. Alexander Vasiliev, editor of the daily Kommersant (which in March lost a correspondent to a suspicious apparent suicide), told Reuters that the Kremlin was trying to close any possible "loophole for some alternative information channel" in preparation for the 2008 presidential elections. Similar concerns were expressed by Roman Bodanin, editor of the political website—which got an official warning for "extremism" last year after writing about the Muhammad cartoons controversy—and Raf Shakirov, former editor of the daily Izvestia, who was sacked after the newspaper criticized the government's handling of the Beslan school siege in 2004. Shakirov described the government's new move as "an attempt to put everything under control, not only electronic media but also personal data about people such as bloggers."

In the same report, Evgeny Strelchik, a spokesman for one of the agencies that are being folded into the new regulatory body, derided these fears as "journalists' fantasies" and noted with satisfaction that "the question of regulation will now be easier." Easier for the regulators, no doubt. As for journalistic paranoia, the slow death of Russia's fledgling freedom of the press is no fantasy. Think of Russian television: brash, lively, and often critical of the government only a few years ago, it is now reduced to a mouthpiece of the Putin regime.

Until now, the online media in Russia have remained relatively free—"relatively" being the operative word. The tools for government surveillance of Web communications are in place: Since 2000, Russia's Internet providers have been required to install and maintain, at their own considerable expense, technology that would allow federal security agencies to monitor all their traffic. A lengthy investigative report published in 2006 on the Russian Democratic Union website alleges that in the Putin years, political forums on the Russian Internet have been the target of deliberate, organized intimidation by pro-government forces. The article, by former St. Petersburg television and BBC Russian Service correspondent Anna Polyanskaya (now Paris-based) and two colleagues, cites disturbing evidence that these digital goon squads are not simply loud, obnoxious, and well-coordinated but quite possibly connected to the government. Their members often seem to have mysterious access to personal data about anti-Putin posters; on some occasions, they have posted disinformation intended to discredit the opposition a few days before these exact same canards are officially circulated by the government. The article also mentions instances of posts critical of the state being purged from site archives. Under the new oversight agency, it seems very likely that freedom on the Russian Internet will become an even more endangered commodity.

Some 10 years ago, when liberty seemed on the march around the world, many optimists claimed that, contrary to George Orwell's gloomy 1984 vision of a technologically empowered omnipotent superstate, new technologies were actually empowering the individual and subverting central authority. It was argued that, in the electronic age, government control of information would become impossible, and dictatorships would crumble.

But dictatorships, like individuals, can be highly adaptable. Technologies that make it easy to disperse information can be thwarted by technologies that make it easy to track communications. True, even in an unfree society, the Internet can give individuals greater access to unauthorized facts and ideas than a typewriter and a radio. But ultimately, technology's liberating potential would still run into the barriers of society's political structure. Sadly, in the years to come, Russians may discover that the Internet can in fact coexist with an authoritarian regime—and even become a tool in its hands.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to reason.