Putin Cracks Down on Russian Internet

Russia's Vladimir Putin has declared war on the Internet, and not just within his country's own borders. Putin's war may be coming soon to a laptop or smart phone near you.

For years we've been told by Putin's apologists that his moves against traditional media didn't matter because it was impossible to strangle Russia's feisty Internet. But for a KGB dictator, "impossible" is a meaningless term. Putin's campaign consists of a three-part pincer movement, and now that he has essentially been made "president for life" he is pursuing it with greatly renewed vigor.

In part one, Putin rammed two key pieces of legislation through the Russian parliament, called the "Duma" or "thinking place." The first allows the Kremlin to shut down websites it doesn't like, and the other allows it to arrest bloggers who go too far on charges of treason. The next phase of this legislative initiative is to strip away the critical protection of anonymity from the Runet, so that Internet scribes who offend the Kremlin can be easily identified and dealt with. The chilling effect alone will radically alter the content of the Runet.

Part two involves aggressive efforts by the Kremlin to control the content of the Internet through manipulation, both overt and covert. Justin Elliot of Pro Publica, for instance, has documented how major websites like CNBC and Huffington Post have been induced to publish propaganda written by the Kremlin as if it were objective, third-party analysis. Then there are flashy websites which are semi-openly operated by the Kremlin for propaganda purposes, such as the English-language Russia Today, Russia Blog, Russia Profile, and Russia Beyond the Headlines -- the latter even uses Kremlin cash to purchase inserts in major newspapers, like the New York Times, written directly by the Kremlin without clearly disclosing this fact. There are lots more that operate in the Russian language, of course.

Finally, part three has the Kremlin looking to place global restrictions on the Internet through the aegis of the United Nations. Here, the Kremlin seeks to paint itself as trying to further the war on terrorism, the same tactic it has used domestically to justify draconian new laws stripping away Internet freedom. The Kremlin can't fully take control of the Internet until it can put pressure on servers located beyond Russia's borders, and the effort also helps the Kremlin to justify its domestic moves and blunt foreign criticism.

During his first twelve years ruling Russia, Putin successfully muzzled virtually all brick-and-mortar media outlets. He seized control of all national broadcast television, the primary source of news for most Russians, driving the owner of the leading independent channel, NTV, into exile. Now, Russian democracy activists are calling on Western companies to pull their advertising from NTV because of its woefully biased pro-Kremlin reporting, which has included defamatory attacks on them. And Putin liquidated or co-opted all the wide-circulation newspapers as well. This has left the Internet as the sole beacon of information available to Russians, and placed it squarely in Putin's crosshairs.

Throughout Putin's first twelve years in power, his apologists told us we did not have to worry about his disturbing moves against newspapers and television, because the Internet was beyond his reach and would remain a bastion of criticism that would counterbalance state-controlled media. They said it was necessary to allow Putin strong-arm tactics because of the chaos he found in Russia. It was a faulty premise, because the majority of Russians lack Internet access and don't obtain information online. But now it is clear that the claim was nothing more than an illusion, because Putin is fully capable of shutting down adverse Internet reporting just like he did with the brick-and-mortar variety. It's clear now that the apologists were just looking to have Putin's critics drop their guard, which many obligingly did.

The leading Putin opponent these days is Alexei Navalny, and he is already facing trumped-up charges that could see him sent to prison for many years. Navalny went all-in on the Internet, first relying on it to stage a series of street demonstrations against Putin and then using it to orchestrate Russia's first online election, for a shadow government, which he handily won.

But the limits of the Runet quickly became apparent, and Navalny's movement has fizzled. He wasn't able to expand it beyond a hundred thousand or so wired hipsters in Moscow because he had no way of effectively communicating with the vast majority of Russians who live beyond the Internet in Russia's provinces. And he was also greatly impaired by the increasing pressure that the Kremlin is placing on Internet political activity, including the ultimate pressure of arrest and jail.

Of course, Putin hasn't always stopped there. Soon after he was appointed head of the KGB in the late 1990s, many of his critics actually started dying. First there were politicians Galina Starovoitova and Sergei Yushenkov, then reporter Anna Politkovskaya, then human-rights activist Natalia Estemirova and then Navalny's fellow attorney Stanislav Markelov, all gunned down in broad daylight. No prosecution has ever unmasked their killers. Activist Yuri Shchekochikhin and KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, by contrast, were dispatched in horrific poisoning incidents. There have been many others.

There's been some pushback of late. German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Moscow and got right in Putin's face over his jailing of three members of the Pussy Riot performance art collective. Putin's response was to accuse Merkel of anti-Semitism because one of the members had participated in a performance by another collective which Putin claimed was anti-Semitic. He was simply lying -- that performance was actually a strong statement against anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in Russia. But in a country where the Kremlin owns and operates all major TV outlets and newspapers, who would call him on his lie?

And the U.S. House has passed the so-called "Magnitsky Bill," named after another of Navalny's fellow lawyers who was brutally killed by the Kremlin for speaking out about corruption. The bill will sanction individual Russians who participate in the denial of human rights, and has been consistently opposed by the Obama administration as part of its effort to "reset" relations with Putin.

Indeed, we began to see the possible permutations of Putin's war strategy as its various elements came together on November 19th. That's when Russia Today reported that former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov could face treason charges for his support of the Magnitsky Bill, charges preferred by United Russia, Putin's party of power in the Duma. Here we sell all three elements of Putin's campaign in action, the corrupt Internet reporting, the legislative action and the international element.

It's thanks in part to Obama's "reset" policy that Putin believes he has a free hand to liquidate the Runet and seek to jail even his most high-profile opponents. Neither Obama nor his ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, have spoken out in defense of Internet freedom in Russia, and to the contrary they have placed roadblocks in the path of Congress as it sought to do so and led a wholesale retreat from Russia by such organizations as Radio Liberty, USAID, and most recently the National Democratic Institute. Obama's policy has been that he'll allow Russia to rebuild the USSR and crush American values, so long as Russia cooperates on nuclear arms limitation measures. Leaving aside the dire consequences for American honor and world leadership, the single treaty Obama has obtained from Putin so far only cuts American nukes, doing nothing more than cap the Russian arsenal.
So under Obama the USA has the worst of all possible worlds. No actual cutbacks in Russian nukes and a tsunami of anti-American crackdowns.

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