Russia: Freedom of Speech Online in 2010

LiveJournal logoWriting for Yezhednevny Zhurnal, columnist Marianna Tishchenko discusses the various forms of pressure that the Russian authorities have used to stifle free speech on blogs and journals on the Russian Internet.

Russia: Freedom of Speech Online in 2010
By Marianna Tishchenko
February 10, 2011
Yezhednevny Zhurnal

With the Internet rising in influence as the single most important source of information (40% of Russian citizens use the Runet), the issue of online freedom of expression has become significantly more relevant. This year, the Internet became a platform for political and social mobilization in Russia. However, judging by the reaction of the Russian authorities, who strive to suppress activities in cyberspace, the government does not see online activism in a particularly positive light.

At the same time as ordinary Russians (who are, by the way, the most active users of social websites in the world) have begun to rely more heavily on the Internet, the government has also changed its priorities in regards to the global web.

Regional Blocking

Blocking websites is a practice used widely by government authorities, mainly on a regional level, to control Internet content. It must be noted that the particular nature of this method is that residents from one concrete region are blocked from seeing the same websites that everyone else can access as normal.

The most outrageous example of limits imposed on freedom of expression on the Internet was the decision of the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Central Regional Court about blocking the website YouTube by Internet provider Rosnet. The ban (which was never put into effect) was a reaction to a neo-Nazi video clip that was put on a “list of extremist materials.” Regardless of the fact that the court’s decision was later forgotten, the case itself is an example of the burgeoning interference by regional authorities over Internet content.

YouTube has not been the only online resource to suffer. At the end of July, a court in the Republic of Ingushetia required a local Internet provider to block access to LiveJournal. In August, a provider in Tula temporarily blocked access to the independent portal Tulskie Pryaniki.

There was an analogous case with the environmental website A provider in the city of Khimki blocked user access to because it was hosting a petition calling for Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko to resign.

Physical and Virtual Violence

In addition to website blocking, the freedom of self-expression on the Internet has been influenced by threats of actual violence against bloggers. Well-known Russian journalist and blogger Oleg Kashin was attacked after he published a series of articles about youth movements and protests against the construction of a highway through the Khimki Forest.

In August, a criminal suit was filed in the Kemerovo region against Aleksandr Sorokin for a post in which he compared regional governors to Latin American dictators.

In November, Ulyanovsk activist and blogger Sasha Bragin became a target of the Russian justice system when he was accused of running over a pedestrian. Bragin said the accident was staged and that a criminal suit had already been filed after he was repeatedly threatened for his investigative work.

A series of criminal suits have been filed against neo-Nazi websites. According to the Sova Center, Komi resident Vladimir Lyurov was sentenced to six months probation for inciting hatred with anti-Semitic comments posted on a local forum. Lyurov has not admitted his guilt.

LiveJournal, which is controlled by Kremlin-allied oligarch Alisher Usmanov, wound up in the center of public attention after suspending their users’ accounts. Rakhat Aliev, a Kazakh opposition politician and ex-son-in-law of President Nazarbayev, had his blog frozen. Incidentally, at one point before then, all of LiveJournal was blocked in Kazakhstan. Blogger pilgrim_67 also had his account blocked, forcing him to “transfer” to BlogSpot and

These cases have proven the instability of LiveJournal as a platform for the Russian political blogosphere.

Blogger accounts were not only closed, but hacked. In the past five years, more than 40 Runet blogs have been attacked.

This week, a group of hackers called “the Brigade of Hell” attacked the blog of Valery Novodvorskaya. Hacker victims include political and commercial bloggers alike and the deletion and falsification of content on online journals still goes unpunished.

According to historian Vladimir Pribylovsky, who has closely investigated hacker attacks on bloggers, this group’s financing is controlled by Timofey Shevyakov, leading analyst of the Kremlin website and former employee of the pro-Kremlin research institute Foundation for Effective Politics.

Control and Deletion of Content

The unrest on Manezhnaya Square on December 11, 2010 provoked a rise in attention paid to the Runet, particularly regarding any information of a nationalistic persuasion. Representatives of the website Vkontakte announced that their moderators were working in cooperation with the police and FSB to delete “dangerous” content. Until then, the site had admitted but not specified the level of cooperation with law enforcement agencies, and now the security services speak openly of monitoring social websites and tracing the IP addresses of people who, in their opinion, are inciting hostility.

Vkontakte was noted for deleting content from its pages more broadly. After the explosion in the Raspadskaya Mine, the website’s management deleted a group created in sympathy for the victims that numbered more than 6000 members when it was deleted. Last July, the group Antireligia (about 8000 members) was also deleted.

Among other measures used against online activists was the incident of Dmitri Gudkov’s car, which was smashed up after Gudkov posted a video titled “Our Gulf of Mexico” about an oil well explosion that the authorities did not react to in any way at all.

Regardless of the fact that the Russian government has staged a series of serious attacks to limit the activities of Internet users, the Runet continues to grow, unite and discuss the most varied topics all the same. It’s possible that the government will realize that controlling freedom of expression is extremely difficult – not only because of the public’s stubbornness, but also because limiting online freedom could not only hinder regional and national debates but also harm the reputation of Russia in the global arena.