Will the Russian internet die young?
May 10, 2014
When I lived in Moscow, I heavily relied on the newspaper The Moscow Times for information about Russia. Very often, I could surprise my Russian friends with news about Russia which they would never have found in the State-controlled media. Recently, the magazine published an article by Victor Davidoff. If it is true what he writes, the Master & Margarita website may no longer be accessible from Russian computers after August 1, 2014.
If there had been Internet when George Orwell wrote 1984, the author would certainly have invented laws like the one passed in its second reading by the Russian State Duma last week.
The law restricts the content of all blogs, including those on social networks, but it stipulates particular conditions for bloggers whose number of daily readers exceeds 3,000. In the best newspeak tradition, the law does not state how the number of daily readers will be determined, and no one knows how to do it - especially on social networks where the number of visits to a page is not public.
But the government has an easy way around this. Internet providers and the owners of social networks will be required to provide this information to the authorities so that bloggers can be entered into a special state registry, which will contain detailed information about them, such as phone numbers and home addresses.
This law places bloggers in a Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, they have all the responsibilities of a media organization. On the other hand, the law specifically forbids them from registering as a media outlet. A journalist has the right to make official inquiries to check facts, but bloggers do not. At the same time, however, bloggers are still required to somehow "certify the factuality of the information on their blogs."
Anti-corruption bloggers like Alexei Navalny have been able to publish information about undeclared luxury properties in the U.S. and Europe owned by Russian government officials. But that will stop, since the law prohibits publication of "information about citizens' location, domicile, personal and family lives."
That is not all that will be banned. The long list of prohibitions includes "the publication of information intended to defame specific categories of citizens based on characteristics including attitude toward religion, profession or political beliefs," as well as the publication of "extremist materials."
To translate this from newspeak, you may need to know how broadly "extremism" is understood by Russian courts. The blogger Boris Stomakhin just received a 6 1/2 year sentence for justifying terrorism. If you think this was for a post praising Osama bin Laden, think again. It was for a post about the terrorist act that killed Emperor Alexander II in 1881, among other topics.
The real Orwellian touch is making bloggers responsible not only for the information in their posts, but also for the information in comments by other users.
The law, which will likely be passed, will instantly put Russia on the first place for Internet censorship. Even China, which until recently was No. 1 in that category, will be far behind. The Chinese leaders have a complex relationship with the World Wide Web, but they understand that it is a key factor in the country's economic development. But Russian authorities' understanding of the Internet is very different.
Their concept was expressed in short form by the country's Big Brother-in-chief, President Vladimir Putin. At a news conference on Thursday he said: "The Internet emerged as a special operation of the CIA. And it has continued to be developed along these lines."
Responding to Putin's preference to block the transfer of information abroad, the new law introduces norms that will be catastrophic for Russia's blogosphere. They require that all e-mail providers and social network owners store information about the users, their posts and e-mail communications on servers in Russia. And these providers will be required to give FSB operatives full access to monitor traffic - that is, to eavesdrop on users.
Russian Internet companies have already stated their negative opinion of the new law. "If there is excessive regulation of the Internet, which would require companies to apply for special licenses from state agencies to use their equipment and software, Russia will lose the Internet as a growth industry in our country," said Dmitry Grishin, the CEO of Mail.ru in an interview to Rbc.ru.
Foreign companies have not yet given official commentary, but it is already clear that they cannot meet the law's requirements. Besides the fact that building data centers in Russia is expensive and complicated, following this law would entail violating privacy laws in their home countries, which apply to their operations worldwide.
Anton Nosik, a prominent Internet analyst, thinks that the authorities will almost surely block Russians' access to Facebook and Twitter after the law comes into effect on August 1, 2014. Nosik believes that this "would be the logical progression in Russian legislation on censorship, which is largely aimed at limiting uncontrolled discussions and criticism of the authorities."
If Nosik's prediction comes true, users will have to laugh at the bitter joke by popular micro-blogger Arseny Bobrovsky, aka @KermlinRussia: "The Russian Internet is 20 years old. What a shame to die so young."
Article published by Victor Davidoff in The Moscow Times, April 27, 2014
Note - In April 2014, Pavel Durov, who was the founder of vKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, has been fired. According to him, it was because he had refused to hand over personal details of users to the Russian Secret Service FSB. vK is now controlled by Ilya Sherbovich, board member of the state oil company Rosneft, and Alisher Usmanov, co-owner of Magefon. Both are close allies of Vladimir Putin. Observers see this event as a preparation for the banning of Facebook in Russia.
Films and TV-series
Along with much information on the novel, you will also find on this website different film adaptations of The Master and Margarita, subtitled in English by your webmaster.