Posts Tagged ‘Internet’
I will receive the Ion Ratiu Democracy Award this Thursday and participate in a workshop/round-table discussion at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The discussions will be dedicated to US and European relations with Russia and to the Russian pro-democracy movement and how it was changed by new technologies. If it sounds interesting and you are in Washington, please feel free to come by!
The first panel, After the “Reset:” US and European Approaches to Russia, will start at 2 pm. Michael McFaul, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, Kurt Volker, managing director of Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS, and former US Ambassador to NATO, and Angela Stent, director of Center for Eurasian, Russian & East European Studies at Georgetown University will discuss the issue.
At the second panel, Democracy: New Tools for the Struggle (starts at 4 pm), I will discuss how new technologies and new approaches are changing the Russian pro-democracy movement. Daniel B. Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Robert Guerra, project director for Internet Freedom at Freedom House, and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, prominent Egyptian democracy activist, will share their comments.
I’m sitting in a cafe at Vienna Airport and have a few minutes for a short account of my visit to Washington DC. I was invited there to discuss the most recent Nations In Transit report by Freedom House. According to the report’s findings, Russia has experienced, unsurprisingly, the worst decline of democracy among all 29 post-Communist countries.
Before and after the discussion that took place at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I and Vladimir Milov (a co-author of the famous Putin. The Outcome reports) met with US policymakers, human rights activists and journalists. We shared our views on the current state of affairs and dynamics of the Russian politics and suggested what can the West do to improve it. One of my ideas was to connect the possibility of US investments into Medvedev’s favourite project of Skolkovo with meeting by the Kremlin of certain conditions of rule of law, independence of the judiciary system and real fight against corruption. Both the Russian society and the American business would benefit from fulfilling fulfilling these conditions, and it would be very difficult to argue against them.
Some other ideas are connected with the positive effect that the US high-tech companies can bring about in Russia. Specifically, I’d name two things: a small one and a big one. The small one is introducing Russian-language interfaces and generally promoting in Russia services like Twitter or flickr. The language barrier is still there despite the two decades of globalization, and even renaming the “Tweet” button into “Чирикнуть” could help a lot. Having more international and independent from the government online services would make RuNet freer and more protected against possible abuse.
The big thing is about bringing more Internet, most importantly broadband, to Russian regions. The vast majority of regular Internet users in the country still reside in Moscow, St. Petersburg and some other big cities while mid-sized and small towns remain offline. Increasing penetration rate is very important to make the Internet an influential medium, in social and political sense. This task is certainly easier to put than to complete, though.
A few minutes after sharing some of these ideas at the State Department, we learned that 10 men were arrested in the US and accused of spying for Russia (fortunately, I am still at large). Looks like the honeymoon between the White House and the Kremlin is over.
You can tell a lot about a political figure by just looking at what people want to know about her. One of the simplest ways to learn it is to use Google’s search prompt.
Lines of the first pic translated top-down:
- “putin and kabaeva” (there are rumors of Putin having an affair with young athlete, United Russia’s State Duma deputy Alina Kabaeva)
- “putin” (plain and simple, yet less popular than the Kabaeva story)
- “putin eats children” (it was a humorous slogan coined by Oborona in 2006 after Putin’s famous kissing of a small boy’s belly)
- “putin crab” (this is a pun made of Putin’s well-known statement that he’d been working “as a slave at a galley,” which sounds in Russian close to “as a crab at a galley”)
- “putin bio” (finally, at least somebody still wants to know something about this guy)
- “dismiss putin” (a popular opposition slogan and a name of a Website where signatures for his resignment are gathered)
- “putin jew” (the guys who tend to believe that Putin is connected with ZOG apparently want to check it)
- “putin vladimir vladimirovich” (his full name, like if there are many different Putins around)
- “putin must go” (it’s quite clear, right?)
- “putin kabaeva” (they stilll want to know more about it)
The least we can say is, few users take Putin seriously. He is either a hero of tabloids, jokes and puns or someone people want to get rid of. Nobody wants to read his speeches, follow his blog (well, he has none anyway) or even learn about any of his proposals (most of them are too vague and populist to be taken seriously, too).
The most brilliant speech that I watched at the Conference on Cybe Dissidents was of Ethan Zuckerman from Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. When talking about how the new technologies changed democracy promotion, he said that now, instead of “parachuting receivers” to citizens of authoritarian countries you should be “parachuting transmitters.” In other words, the new tehcnologies empower people and give them more capacity to improve things from within.
This is very close to my perception of foreign assistance: it shouldn’t be about building democracy from outside, but about bringing tools so that people can build democracy for themselves.
Yesterday I participated in a Conference on Cyber Dissidents held in Dallas jointly by George W. Bush Institute and Freedom House. Despite mixed feelings about GWB’s presidency, I decided to take part; I try to use every opportunity to share my views and listen to others. Both President Bush and his wife participated in the event too (Laura Bush stayed the whole day).
Thanks to the ash cloud from Iceland I had to participate via video conferencing. After all, it wouldn’t be a cyber dissidents event if everyone managed come and without these geek things. We used ooVoo and Skype and both worked well (the former one allowed multiple people to participate simultaneously but is either paid or ad-sponsored).
Here is a transcript of my speech:
It is honor for me to speak at this conference. I managed to watch most of the presentations and I find them amazing. I’ll share some experience that we have in Russia with the new media.
1. Almost all conventional media are blocked:
- TV directly or indirectly owned by the government;
- most radio stations and newspapers are either controlled by the authorities, or self-censored, or have little general impact.
2. Internet became a natural resort for people looking for uncensored information and free exchange of ideas.
3. Traditional ways of involvement into civic or political activities on the Internet are:
- users can gain access to alternative sources of news and opinions;
- people discuss political issues in blogs and forums that are extremely popular in the Runet (like LiveJournal);
- grassroots groups organize online and offline actions using social networks and blogs.
More online tools are utilized by protest groups including Twitter, video blogging, live broadcasts, civil journalism and Web 2.0.
Interestingly, more and more grassroots initiatives, not connected with any political groups, start on the Internet.
As penetration rate of the new technologies increases, they rapidly replace TV as the main political media.
4. Government is trying to stop this process. They are making it in a smarter way than Iranian or Chinese authorities. They don’t block all the “bad sites” right away. In fact, very few Websites are permanently blocked in Russia.
Instead, they hire hackers to put the Websites or blogs down. Targets of such attacks included Estonian official sites, leading independent online news media, opposition groups’ Websites and individual bloggers. Some of such attacks are extremely powerful and expensive.
Another way of dealing with “uncomfortable” bloggers is more conventional: persecution. Since 2008, more and more bloggers have been sentenced for “extremism.” After some recent amendments to the criminal law, almost any criticism may be considered inciting hatred against social groups–extremism. For instance, people who discussed police brutality were sentenced for inciting hatred against the police and a guy who criticized his governor was sentenced for inciting hatred against the local government as a social group. There’s no limit to your imagination.
Such showcases make many more bloggers think twice before posting anything critical.
Ultimately, the government invests a lot into their own resources. They hire Internet experts, make deals with leading sites and buy popular websites including LiveJournal. This is one of the most serious challenges to the protest groups because we’ll never match the government’s resources.
But we are still superior in creativity and enthusiasm.
Russian bloggers have a reason for a small celebration today. For the first time, a blogger was cleared of all extremist charges. Dmitry Soloviev could face up to two years inprisonment for criticizing the police and FSB on his blog. See more on his case here.
The investigation started in August 2008 and in March 2009 Dmitry (who is a member of Oborona, by the way) was charged with “inciting hatred, hostility and degrading a social group of people—the police and FSB,” a violation of the infamous paragraph 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. The blog posts dealt with “siloviki” participating in political repression and contained no calls for violence or even curse words. However, the investigator was very confident that Soloviev would be convicted, and so were the prosecutors: Dmitry’s persecution has been prolonged a number of times, most recently by Deputy Chief Prosecutors. The case lasted almost 1.5 years.
Persecution of Soloviev became a widely discussed topic, a committee in his support was found in Moscow; I was one of its members. Hundreds of bloggers signed a petition in support of Dmitry, but its addressees (Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, State Duma, Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigative Committee) ignored it. Bloggers resorted to civil disobedience: dozens of them reposted the “extremist” entries on their blogs, some did it publicly at a Moscow’s central square. The government had to choose between persecuting hundreds people countrywide and ignoring this “act of extremism.” They chose the latter. The officer who was investigating Soloviev’s case was overwhelmed with letters and calls in support of Dmitry.
Ultimately, the detective began to give in. In mid-2009 he agreed to hold an independent examination of Dmitry’s texts outside Kemerovo (where it would be harder for him or FSB to press on the experts). Both such groups of experts, in Moscow and in Tomsk, found no signs of extremism in Dmitry’s texts. The investigation lost any sense after that and on the last day of 2009 the case was closed.
There’s not much to celebrate, however. More and more criminal investigations are being opened against bloggers in Russia, most connected to the same paragraph 282. Dozens of bloggers have been convicted of “extremism” or have been charged with it in last two years. There have been no cases (at least known ones) when bloggers were acquitted, and Soloviev is the first one who was cleared of the charges. Most are sentenced to either fine or conditional imprisonment. Some, like Irek Murtazin, former spokesman of Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiev, go to jail. Russian authorities justify such harsh measures by the growth of xenophobia, but in fact accusation of extremism is widely used to silence criticism of the government and bloggers are a target number one.
A briefing was held last Thursday in the US Helsinki Commission (officially named the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe) dedicated to the use of microblogs and new media to promote freedom in authoritarian countries. A lot was said about Russia, and I’ll just cite Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House, who referred to a few recent examples of how we utilized Web 2.0 to spread information about electoral fraud:
Citizens in the former Soviet Union have used new media to assert their rights and to challenge abuses of power. In Russia, for example, the Internet was the primary means for drawing attention to fraud in this month’s local elections. When observers in the Moscow district of Zyablikovo found a group of individuals hired to vote for United Russia multiple times, they used Twitter and Livejournal blogs to spread the news immediately and to publish photos of the violators.
A member of that district’s electoral commission, [Andrey Klyukin] gave an online interview to describe in detail the plan behind this fraud. The interview was widely viewed on Russian YouTube and covered by several traditional media outlets. Another group of observers published video footage of a polling-station chairman in the city of Azov as he tried to mix fraudulent ballots which had already been filled in for United Russia with legitimate ballots. This video became a hit in the Russian blogosphere and prompted a criminal investigation of the polling-station chairman. Digital media spread the news of voter fraud in Russia’s local elections and contributed to a real-world response. The news triggered a public demonstration on October 12th
in Moscow’s Pushkin Square and prompted all three opposition parties to walk out of Parliament in protest.
Authoratian governments are aware of the threat that new media pose to them and they use a wide arsenal to silent online criticism, Mr Calingaert continues:
Authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet republics and elsewhere continue to repress their citizens, and this repression extends to digital media. In Russia, for example, Internet freedom has declined significantly in recent years, as bloggers have become subject to hacker attacks, legal prosecution and physical violence. Although there is no technical filtering in Russia, officials often make phone calls to pressure web hosts or Internet service providers to remove unwanted content. The director of a leading hosting company, Master Host, admitted that his company gets about 100 requests a day to remove content from inconvenient – so-called “inconvenient” Web sites.
Oborona, the Russian youth democratic movement, has opened its Facebook page (in English). Welcome!
Putin’s party United Russia launched their new Web site today. It featured a large image in the center of its frontpage with a pseudo-3D city (inside the blue circle):
In the lower left part of the image you can see OMON (riot police) troops shoot at civilians (a peaceful demonstration?):
Russian bloggers quickly found that this picture had been stolen from the Web site of Orange Label design studio. Only a few changes have been made: for instance, the United Russia’s designers changed the words on the car from “SWAT” to “ОМОН” (OMON).
Below is my latest column for RobertAmsterdam.com dedicated to Dmitry Soloviev’s case and attempts of the FSB to crack down on bloggers.
FSB: a Final Solution for Bloggers
Dmitry Soloviev, a leader of the Oborona youth movement in Kemerovo region, faces criminal charges for criticizing the “siloviki” in a LiveJournal blog. He is accused by the regional prosecutor of posting information that “incites hatred, hostility and degrades a social group of people—the police and FSB”. According to the anti-extremist legislation introduced in 2006 (more specifically, the infamous paragraph 282 of the Criminal Code), he may face up to two years imprisonment if convicted.