The Last Island of Freedom

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In the culminating moment of vote counting after the Parliamentary election, users of Russia’s internet was buzzing with a less sensational news item. A Russian company named “SUP Fabrik” bought out the popular LiveJournal blog service from the American Six Apart. For those people not up-to-date on their internet-socializing, in translation “from Albanian to Russian,” this means that from now on, the possibilities for censorship are growing. Though perhaps currently theoretical, the idea of pressure on dissident thinking in cyberspace is completely realistic.

True, the right for development and operation of the Russian segment of LiveJournal was bought out by the Russian businessmen in October of the past year. Even then, this summoned a negative reaction from some users. Fortunately, the more alarming predictions regarding censorship on LiveJournal haven’t proven true. The project was led Anton Nosik, a liberal-minded journalist and famed personality of the Russian internet. The SUP Fabrik company was formed by financier Aleksanr Mamut and Andrew Paulson.

Meanwhile, both before and after SUP’s arrival, the Russian-language segment of LiveJournal continued to expand by leaps and bounds. Today, more than one million bloggers and their communities have websites hosted by the service. It would seem a huge achievement for Russia, not so advanced in terms of the proliferation of high technologies! However, if you look closer at the popularity of Russian LiveJournal, you begin to discover that many of the authors set up blogs out of something other than leisurely idleness.

If in the West the majority of blogs are something like electronic diaries along the lines of “I woke up at seven in the morning, walked the dog, fed my parrot,” then in Russia, LiveJournal became in its own way the sole uncensored and practically free platform for the expression of political views and debates between opponents. Since the “Duma isn’t a place for discussion,” [As Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov recently announced] the once legible newspapers turned into “Putin and boobs,” and the television into “bleak dreck,” then only the internet remains. That’s why blogs were set up by not only the jeering “authors” and “low-lifes,” but by the best Russian journalists, opposition politicians, and leaders of youth-movements that don’t fit into the procrustean “us or them” stock. Incidentally, since such a racket was started, soon the Kremlin youth and their brains – the Kremlin propagandists, just had to start their own electronic journals. For some years now, they have tried to gather a high relative weight in cyberspace, but so far to no avail!

In the beginning, those with nationalistic views – from common skinheads to hard ideologues – seemed to dominate among LiveJournal’s political authors. Which, incidentally, hardly worried the powers that be, even as the blogs published just about anything: from fascist propaganda to video-clips of guest-workers and international student being beaten. The situation fundamentally changed only when the liberal, discontented opposition, pushed out of the political sphere, appeared on LiveJournal. They soon started to garner the majority of votes in various internet-polls, [and the authorities began to worry], since this audience wasn’t so “socially close!” Then, the clear heads started to materialize the first ideas: to take control of the virtual space, and submerge the opposition into a total information vacuum!

Naturally, we can’t confirm that this latest acquisition by SUP…is part of an artful chekist plan. In any case, for now LiveJournal Inc. will retain American jurisdiction, and will continue operations from San Francisco. Commenting on the outcomes of the work of SUP in Russia, Chris Alden, the chairman of Six Apart’s board, said that in the past year, SUP and SixApart worked in close collaboration on developing assets, and that the number of Russian-speaking users doubled over this period. “We have been impressed by the expertise and enthusiasm that SUP has brought to LiveJournal in Russia. They’ve introduced new features, nearly doubled the number of users, invested in key product enhancements, and have done justice to one of the most innovative online social networks in the world.”

Russian representatives of SUP assured the community that changes in operations will be minimal. They will be aimed at the establishment of transparent and clear principles regarding communication and consulting on important questions. One of the central innovations will be the creation of an independent supervisory board, which will consist of industry experts and two members of the LiveJournal community, chosen by users. LiveJournal founder Brad Fitzpatrick has already agreed to work with the board. Still, many Russian bloggers rushed to express their concerns about the buyout. They pointed to the significant timing – on the day of Parliamentary elections, and on the eve of the Russian presidential campaign. “We have been sold. We have been handed over. With all the garbage. And even you. Here we had at least some kind of freedom. All this is just too obvious. What, you were being too strong an eyesore on LiveJournal, yeah?” – writes one of the popular authors.

“Those Russians who value freedom of expression and thought have nothing more to wait for here,” echoes a second writer. “Here they’ve already instituted a snitching service on the mind-criminals, and soon Putin’s Red Guard and commissars will be sitting under every button, ensuring guidelines, and checking the content for conformity. They haven’t splurged on LiveJournal to allow Russian citizens the freedom to discuss whichever topics they want in whatever manner they choose.”

“I am far removed from politics,” writes a third. “My feelings about this news are roughly like this. There were some people sitting in a cozy café, say, in Nice, socializing about their own something, showing photographs. And here all of a sudden it turns out, that their talks and photographs are very interesting to extremely unsympathetic people. And to take control of this café and all of these discussions and photographs is so important to these people, that they pay millions of dollars. As a businessman I understand this, but as a user of LJ, this attention makes me tense.”

“First of all, LiveJournal can now be registered as a Russian mass-media, with all the resulting consequences. Even if this isn’t done, one way or another, the owner of the Russian company will from now on be obliged, at the request of the law-enforcement agencies, to open friends-only entries or freeze journals. I am certain, that this tactic will already be in full swing during the coming elections in a few months. Most LiveJournal users probably have nothing to fear from the Russian procuracy, but the principle of transparency isn’t thrilling,” a fourth blogger sums up.

During the recent arrests of Other Russia activists in the run-up to the November Dissenters’ Marches, and State Duma elections, it came to light that law-enforcement officers already actively read LiveJournal. Thus, among the questions posed to the detained activists were: “Is it true that *** is the nickname of your LiveJournal?” “Which other users do you actively communicate and coordinate actions with? Who’s hiding behind the ***, *** and *** nicknames? Do you know the real names of these people?” Internet users are also familiar with the first cases of criminal prosecution for posts and even for comments left on LiveJournal. The most odious of them is the so-called “Savva Terentyev affair,” galvanized in conjunction with a blogger from the Komi Republic. The blogger posted, and even rescinded a joking comment, that “the unjust cops should be incinerated on Stefanov Square.”

In short, the situation with LiveJournal from now on is reminiscent of the situation with the REN-TV television channel, and with the “Ekho Moskvy” (Echo of Moscow) radio station. For now there are no indications that the owner, in this case “SUP,” is plotting anything against Russia’s bloggers. Just like Gazprom [which owns Ekho Moskvy] isn’t yet pressuring its nonconformist radio station. But the theoretical capability of that Sword of Damocles, hanging over the last island of freedom, worries me in and of itself. Since, as is well known, in politics it’s the capabilities that are important and not the intentions. Like in that classic joke: “You weren’t distilling moonshine, but you’ve got the device.”

Sergei Petrunin

[The complete anecdote goes like this:
During a search of a collective farm worker, a moonshiner’s still is found.
“So,” says the officer. “Wonderful! We’re gonna bring you in for distilling.”
“But I wasn’t distilling!”
“But you have the device!?”
“Then you’d better try me for rape too!”
“What, you raped someone!?”
“No! But I’ve got that device too!”]

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