News / Europe

Russians Battle Over Internet Freedom

A Muscovite surfs a Web site at an Internet cafe in downtown Moscow (2006 file)
A Muscovite surfs a Web site at an Internet cafe in downtown Moscow (2006 file)
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A massive hacker attack knocked Russia’s most popular opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, off the internet Friday. Earlier this week, three days of hacker attacks repeatedly knocked out LiveJournal, the nation’s main platform for blogs.

As Russia’s roughly 40 million internet users digested these attacks, the nation’s top communications security official proposed Friday to ban Skype, Hotmail, and Gmail as uncontrolled threats to Russian security. It is unclear if the official from Russia’s FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB, will get his way.

With Russia’s internet users expanding by 10,000 people a day, security officials fret about the internet - a vast, uncontrolled cyberspace.

After the youth revolts spread through the Arab world, the FSB proposed that every Russian user of Facebook and other social networks be required to sign user contracts that included passport information and home addresses.

Andrei Soldatov, an author of a book on the FSB, explains how he views these moves toward internet controls:

"A direct consequence of the events in the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, in Egypt," he said. "Because for many experts and for many politicians, it seems that social networks played a crucial role."

Russia is now in an election year. Parliamentary elections are in December. Presidential elections are in March. The ruling United Russia party won regional elections last month, but with generally reduced showings.

Soldatov sees this week’s hacker attacks as a practice for serious shutdowns later this year, when the campaigning and the vote counting gets hot.

"For me it seems like a test of the technology - how to shut down such an important service," he said.

LiveJournal in Russia hosts almost five million bloggers and receives visits from 13 million users a month.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former parliamentarian and active LiveJournal blogger, said the Kremlin is getting nervous about Russia’s largely uncontrolled blogging space.

Next week, Ryzhkov plans to hold an anti-corruption rally in central Moscow. In March, his opposition colleagues started to use LiveJournal to distribute their new pamphlet entitled, Putin = Corruption.

The attacks first attacked the LiveJournal blog of Alexei Navalny, widely considered to be Russia’s leading anti-corruption crusader. Navalny routinely calls Russia’s ruling United Russia party, the party of thieves and swindlers.  After his blog was attacked, he called the attacks a counter-propaganda campaign.

But it soon became apparent that the attackers were aiming at LiveJournal itself.

Ilya Dronov, development manager for the site, the seventh most popular in Russia, wrote on his blog: "Somebody really wants LiveJournal to cease to exist."

Ryzhkov, the opposition leader, pointed his finger at the FSB.  He charges that the FSB has a secret unit with up to 300 technicians dedicated to monitoring and controlling the internet.

In response, Gleb Pavlovsky, pro-Kremlin political analyst, says the opposition is being excessively nervous. He dismissed internet users as young, politically apathetic, and non voters.

The most prominent victim of the LiveJournal shutdowns was Dmitry Medvedev. Russia’s internet savvy President maintains a blog on Live Journal. He is often photographed using an I-pad.

When service was restored Thursday night to LiveJournal, he blogged: "As an active LiveJournal user, I consider these actions outrageous and illegitimate. What happened should be investigated both by the LiveJournal administration and by law enforcement agencies."

Comments posted on the blog back his call for a police crackdown on the hackers.

But Ryzhkov, the opposition leader, is skeptical. He said President Medvedev talks a lot about freedom of speech and internet, but has no control over Russia’s security services. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, is widely seen as ultimately in charge of what are called here the ‘power forces.'

So it seems that a classic Russian battle is shaping up between freedom and control. Only this time, the battle being waged is about cyberspace.


James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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