Russian authorities are flexing their muscles- again targeting the internet. In yet another attack on web privacy, the government will now require people using public Wifi facilities to provide identification. The action has prompted swift condemnation from bloggers and telecom operators alike – not to mention confusion over how it would work. It will also require companies to declare who is using web networks. The law, signed by Prime Minister Medvedev on July 31 was published online this past Friday and is only the latest in a string of attacks by the Russian government against internet freedom.
We recently reported on a new law aimed at tightening the Russian reins on the blogosphere, hence eliminating one of the few remaining places in that country where people could freely criticize the government. Popularly known as the “law on bloggers”, the legislation requires users of any website whose posts are read by more than 3,000 people each day to publish under their real name and register with the authorities.
There has been a flood of new laws regulating Russia’s internet including the blocking of two websites of President Vladimir Putin’s prominent adversaries. With paranoia typical of him, Putin famously denounced the internet as a “CIA project” this past April. A pro-Kremlin lawmaker opined that the measure was necessary to foil Cold War-style propaganda attacks against the state. This characterization is currently gaining traction in Russia as it seeks to portray itself as a victim in the Ukrainian crisis.
Alexei Venediktov, editor of the popular Ekho Moskvy radio, parodied the decree, suggesting that the government’s next move would be to embed a computer chip in people’s chests “to automatically detect potential sellers of information to the enemy.” While amusing, this is no laughing matter to opponents of the law which was rushed through the legislature and caught the industry by surprise, though Russia watchers should never be surprised by such radical reactions by the Russian government.
Putin is obviously capitalizing on his wave of popularity emanating from his recent annexation of the Crimea and castigation of the West as villains. His crackdowns on the media are timely and opaque. The country is in for much hardship as a result of sanctions imposed on it for its militant actions, punctuated by the shooting down of civilian airliner, MH-17, by Russian backed separatists.
If the Kremlin can stifle the internet, than it will control all media as it already dictates the flow of information on the airwaves and in the print media. This will preclude the Russian people from knowing the truth about what’s going on in the world.
That the Russian people will wake up to the Putin ploys is too much to ask for. Fortunately, alternate means of garnering information and communicating exist in the form of VPNs is available. It is our hope that outlets such as this will prove more popular and mitigate the impact of Russia’s continued assault on the internet.