5 May 2016

80% control

The Kremlin already has a tight grip on RuNet but does not intend to rest on its laurels

Further website filtering is under way

Alexander Bastrykin, the Chairman of the Russia’s Investigative Committee announced that a large-scale information war had been waged by the United States and its partners. He proposed tightening the legislation on internet-filtering, and learning from the Chinese experience of restricting media freedom as a means of “retaliation.” According to the head of the Investigative Committee, responsibility for radical statements should be tightened, law enforcement agencies should receive additional powers and extra-judicial website-blocking powers should be enhanced. This is yet another step aimed at providing “supervisory and regulatory authorities” with tools to block any website on Russian territory.

Control over RuNet is exercised through two major means: mass propaganda via Kremlin-controlled news websites and precision blocking of opposition resources or individual users. Additionally, popular methods include the use of bot farms, mass complaints about unwanted social media users and DDoS attacks.

Between twenty and thirty events affecting online freedom occur in Russia every month: new draft laws, criminal cases, law enforcement practices, broadening of the criteria for blocking “banned information”. Nine thousand websites were blocked in 2015 and more than 12,300 were blocked in the first quarter of this year. A consistently growing number of law enforcement officers have mastered search engines and social media and have tried to boost their KPIs by conventional site blocking and identifying “extremist” cases.

Bastrykin speaks of the transpiring negative tendency in the dynamics of extremist propaganda. Based on that, he proposes the tightening of Internet-related legislation. However, close examination of specific “acts of extremism” shows that criminal and administrative cases are often initiated against persons who post symbols of Nazi Germany on social media and blogs: in today’s Russia, it is forbidden to display the swastika, whether it is in a war film, a 1942 cartoon about Donald Duck or in caricatures ridiculing fascism by the “Kukryniksy.”

In some cases, anti-fascist views may become a reason for political decisions. For example, a candidate for the city Duma, representing the “Yabloko” party, was struck off from a ballot in Izhevsk for “propaganda or expressing Nazi values or symbols in public.” The candidate expressed his discontent about a Forum of nationalists which was held in Saint Petersburg. By the way, this Forum was organized by “Rodina” party members. Timofey Klabukov posted and denounced photos of Forum participants openly displaying Nazi symbols on Facebook which resulted in him facing trial. At the trial, however, the court refused to take into account the fact of his anti-fascist comments which accompanied the photos.

The absurdity of numerous acts of censorship is covered in the media quite broadly, which, however, does not affect the situation on the whole. The federal list of extremist material contains 3,390 instances. It turns out that an ordinary Internet user has to learn all of these “rules” in order not to inadvertently become implicated in a criminal case.

Prohibitive mechanisms make it possible to put any media outlet or user in the position of the accused. So far, it is still a means of precision attack for the authorities against the most “problematic” disseminators of information. In order to affect the mass of Internet users, the Kremlin uses media outlets it controls which are funded through public finance directly or indirectly. Key figures have also been removed from hardline editorial boards over the last few years. Sometimes this happens without breaking up a team, as in the case of Svetlana Mironyuk (RIA Novosti) and Mikhail Kotov (Gazeta.ru), whereas in other cases, the old team follows its former leader out of the door, as happened in the notorious case of the dismissal of Galina Timchenko from her post at Lenta.ru.

Coercion is another mechanism employed: Checks in Mikhail Prokhorov’s “Onexim” are being widely discussed on RuNet. The RBC media holding (the online media outlet rbc.ru with a monthly audience of nearly 21 million unique users, a TV channel, print press and online portals) is part of “Onexim.” Due to financing by the “Onexim” Group, RBC can publish unbiased news and is one of the most visited online resources in the country. Judging from information from many sources, the underlying aim behind the checks is to put pressure on Prokhorov to sell one of the oldest Russian Internet portals.

The news agenda

The audience of RuNet is growing by 8-12% every year and now comprises more than 80 million users, 66 million of whom use the Internet daily. One third of users visit news sites and are fed a news agenda devised by Kremlin-dependent media. Of the top-20 Russian sites from the “News and media” category, only four (with some reservations) can be described as independent of the authorities: RBC, “Meduza,” “Kommersant” and “Echo of Moscow.” They account for 20% of all traffic and attract propagandist attacks from Russian television as a result.

Thus, in late March, the ”Russia” TV channel devoted an entire piece to the activity of the ”Meduza” web-portal with the accompanying description: “To what extent is the information war declared by Washington and Brussels against Russia total in nature? Who constructs European phobias and how? Who is broadcasting for us from the Western trenches?” A few months earlier, in December, an interview with the former employee of “Echo of Moscow” appeared on “NTV.” In the interview, she claimed that she had gained access to the servers of the radio station and that journalists and the chief editor are currently facing criminal charges as high traitors. These are just a couple of examples out of many.

The growth in popularity of the websites of state-run TV stations is exponential: “Vesti” (ranks 7th), “NTV” (12th), “REN TV” (13th), “Zvezda” (16th) and, according to adjusted statistics, “Life News” (9th). The interest of Internet users in the medium of video is a growing global trend. TV editorial boards offer better quality and more attractive content than individual video-bloggers. Therefore, a blasé viewer will prospectively choose to watch TV online. Live TV on websites comprises 5-7% of users at the moment, however, this indicator is set to rise. Russian television is successfully replacing the antenna with cable and is catching up with its audience yet again…

No gathering and no processing of information

The automated “Yandex.News” service should be noted separately. Its monthly audience comprises nearly 12 million users. A bill “on news aggregators” was drafted to combat it. The news service gathers data from nearly seven thousand sources and automatically creates an overall daily picture. “Yandex.News” communicates original headlines or lead-ins to news stories whilst prompting users to visit the most interesting site.

Russian lawmakers are convinced that such resources artificially boost interest in topics connected with investigations into corruption cases or opposition activities. According to the draft law, “the news aggregator” should introduce pre-moderation (manual checks of hundreds of thousands news stories every day), remove news stories upon the demand of Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications) or recognize the news of their partners as their own content (and therefore adopt all legal risks). “Yandex” has already informed that the service will no longer be able to survive should the law be adopted. This will lead to fatal consequences for all Russian news sites – for the majority of them, traffic from aggregators constitutes between 30 percent to 50 percent of their overall traffic. Apart from the direct threat to news aggregators – “Yandex.News,” “News@Mail.ru” or “Google.News” - this law could also affect Facebook and Twitter since they are foreign-owned, and they gather, process and disseminate information.

The Russian firewall

Thus far, we cannot speak of total control over the information agenda on RuNet – the audiences of independent media actively disseminate information via social media which prevents the “hushing up of the topic” or its total displacement by another news story. However, the attack on RuNet continues, and the prospect of a “Chinese firewall” already seems to be quite a serious one. Lawmakers do not harbor fears about reducing the speed of internet connections following the filtration of sites, although this would negatively affect GDP and President Putin personally supports the introduction of a “Google tax” (VAT on services provided by foreign-owned IT companies).

Large global corporations do not want to lose out on the Russian market and thus they make concessions. For example, the law on the storage of users’ personal data has forced international companies to move their servers to Russia. Moreover, the location of physical servers of big businesses on the territory of Russia enables the minimization of problems which will transpire in the case of the country’s possible retreat from the worldwide web. Presently, this is impossible due to the large number of Internet providers with external channels beyond control. Besides, satellite networks stand in the way of a “blackout.” However, control over the network operators will increase – they have been obliged to install site-blocking check systems before the end of the year and they might be forced to store all user traffic for a period of three years.

In September 2016, elections to the State Duma will be held in Russia. The last election was massively fraudulent. Tens of thousands people took to the streets to express their discontent. The majority of them used the Internet to communicate and coordinate their actions. The largest rallies in contemporary Russia were organized via social media. State Duma deputies have been actively engaged over the past five years to ensure that history does not repeat itself… 

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