The Washington Post reported last weekend on efforts by the Russian government to take greater control over the Internet in that country. The article cites as example the purchase of the Russian segment of LiveJournal, a popular Russian blog hosting service. Expatriate Russian bloggers used LiveJournal heavily until they became outraged that the popular blog service had been sold by the US-based company to a Russian tycoon with close ties to the Kremlin. Wired and many other sources have covered the issue. The Post article also cites the use of the Internet during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution as a turning point in the Russian government’s decision to begin to restrict access (and take lessons in how to do so from the Chinese), create a cadre of loyal bloggers and buy up popular online news sites. The I&D project’s own case study of the use of technology during the Orange revolution, to be published in December, found that news sites created a critical alternative media source for Ukrainians and that cell phones and SMS technology aided civil society groups as they organized protests against election fraud. However, it was not a primary cause of the revolution and technology could not replace real civil society leadership, although many “cyber utopians” would have us believe the opposite.
Given the growing use of the Internet by Russians (25% according to the Post), it seems the regime is set on squashing dissenting voices on the Internet. The Kremlin also seems willing to take over the alternative media sources available online as their popularity grows and begins to rival the mainstream media, especially television, which has long had government influence. Whether these steps and plans to create its own Cyrillic-based Internet with other CIS states are an over reaction, given that 75% of the country is not online, remains to be seen. However, it is clear that the Kremlin sees online journalism, civic activity and unregulated debate as enough of a threat to justify their gradual take over.