Kremlin moves to prevent a social media revolution

As Luke Harding could verify, Russia’s record of free speech leaves much to be desired. This political issue has come to the fore again, this time in a digital context. The Kremlin has announced plans to make social networking sites accountable for user comments, a suggestion which has been justified on public order grounds.

It is no secret that social media has played an important role in the Middle Eastern uprisings; and the government fears that similar citizen protests could take hold in Russia. If these measures were implemented, however, they would pose a serious threat to the Russian people. Such rules increase the power of the government and weaken the citizen’s position.

This move would represent an important change in law and policy. The inevitable consequence of this would have a chilling impact. Imposing this kind of legal regulation on speech is a form of indirect censorship, and indeed may breed direct censorship on the part of the websites. The idea is to turn the site operators against the users they set out to empower.

John Hood makes this point very succinctly: “Security agencies have proposed that owners of social-media sites be made responsible for all comments on their sites, a way to pressure them to turn over data on individual users who might be subject to criminal prosecution.”

Self-censorship is an inevitable consequence of operating within this framework. If users know that they are liable to be prosecuted for their comments, they are less likely to dare to make them. This is reinforced by the legal incentive on the websites to report users instead of ‘protecting’ them. In reality, preeminent organisations like Facebook and Twitter are unlikely to be subject to such coercion. But bigger challenges will be faced by Russian websites, which cannot depend on this international reputation.

Nonetheless, the principle remains the same. This practice constricts freedom of both expression and association. The internet is increasingly used as tool to raise support for a cause, and to inspire corresponding action. The Kremlin is patently aware of this fact, and feels threatened.

The administration’s fear of being overthrown is very real. President Medvedev answered the question of a potential push for regime change by the opposition with apparent certainty: “Let’s face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to implement it.”

This has hardly been the Russian government’s first attempt to control online social media. They have previously launched a more proactive offensive in training a “school of bloggers” who then disseminate propaganda in favour of the government. This method functions as both a sword and a shield for the Kremlin, who can also use these bloggers to counter online attacks on the regime. Although the original initiative was closed down, the same practices were adopted by the regions and have continued.

In a nation with 40 million internet users (who tend to be middle class and more politically engaged), it is unsurprising that the government wishes to exercise such control. The internet has been exposed as a tool for liberation, so it is an obvious target for those who wish to suppress this.

Recent events have shown that as the potential for expression increases, so does the potential for censorship. This new policy is just part of a series of measures adopted in a bid to control the internet and restrict the new powers it has offered citizens.

Originally published in ORG Zine on the 9th of March 2011:

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