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How free is the Russian internet?

0 17 March 2014

Until recently the internet was considered the last stronghold of free-speech and free-information in Russia, where individuals could express their views without fear of censorship. These qualities are perhaps best embodied in two individuals: Pavel Durov (left) and Alexei Navalny (right).

Durov, a libertarian and firm believer in free-information, turned VK.com into one of the largest hosting services in Europe, where users could upload (and download) any music, film or literary content they desired. Copyright holders, understandably, were not impressed. 

With Durov at the helm VK.com also refused to comply with the government’s demands - during the free-election protests in December 2011 he ignored the Kremlin’s request to shut down the site’s biggest anti-government group and responded to a summons to the prosecutor’s office with a picture of a husky dressed in a hoodie and sticking out his tongue. 

Alexei Navalny, the leading figure in the Russian opposition, made his name through his LiveJournal blog, on which he exposes corruption and incessantly criticised the authorities.  He subsequent ran in the Moscow mayoral elections last year and took second place, cementing his position as the most credible figure to lead an anti-Putin political movement. 

However, all this has not escaped the Kremlin’s notice, and it has taken steps to reduce the influence of these two non-conformists. First UCP, a fund with links to the Kremlin, took advantage of a dispute between Durov and his partners to acquire 48% of VK, Russia’s most popular social network. UCP’s relationship with Durov was marked by conflict right from the start, and when the support of Alisher Usmanov, the other major shareholder in the project, seemed to wane, Durov chose to sell up, passing on his 12.5% stake to Ivan Tavrin, a 

The state managed to get Durov to ‘go quietly’. This was never going to be easy with Navalny, who is closely connected to the noisiest part of the Russian anti-Putin movement.  However, a law passed at the very end of 2013 allowing the authorities to block any undesirable website made its task much easier. businessman with links to Usmanov’s Mail.ru Group. One down…

The procedure outlined in this new law was put into action against Navalny last week. Roskomnadzor, the agency responsible for ‘policing’ the Russian internet, announced that access to Navalny’s blog must be restricted. It instructed LiveJournal and Ekho Moskvy, the main platforms for Navalny’s blog, to restrict access immediately, and warned them that if they did not then internet providers would be obliged to block access to the whole LiveJournal and Echo Moskvy sites. 

Echo Moskvy and LiveJournal reluctantly acceded to Roskomnadzor’s demands, but requested an explanation of exactly which of Navalny’s statements are considered “of an extremist nature”. However, this did not stop a number of major internet providers jumping the gun and blocking access to the sites - both reported problems that clients of major providers including state-telecom corporation Rostelekom had been unable to access their sites last Friday. Access to the rest of the LiveJournal and Ekho Moskvy has now been restored, but a clear message has been sent to other sites that they must comply with Roskomnadzor’s demands, or face closure. 

Two down…

Much of this post is based on Russian journalist Nikolay Kononov's new column in the New York Times. Kononov is the author of "The Durov Code", a book about Durov's life, and editor of online business journal Hopes and Fears

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