Russia's political opposition is active on the Internet, but maybe not for long. A new youth protection law allows the blocking of websites - and that could take critical opposition sites off the web.
There are no photos, just uninspiring legal texts on zapret-info.gov.ru; it's an unspectacular website set up by Roskomnadzor, Russia's Federal Surveillance Service for Mass Media and Communications.
Since November 1, 2012, people can access the state agency's data bank to check which websites Russian authorities have blocked. Critics are describing the data base as a blacklist. For a time, authorities blocked access to a popular site called lurkmore.to, which describes itself as a humoristic encyclopedia of modern culture, folklore and sub-culture. The site, authorities argued, glorifies drug consumption. Following massive protest, the block was cancelled.
The list is supposed to include websites with content harmful to minors, along the lines of new legislation to protect children signed by President Vladimir Putin in summer. The law aims to help ban child pornography, drug-dealing or details on how to commit suicide from the Internet. "We have the right to protect our children," Putin told Russian TV.
The new law is controversial: the German parliament has already expressed its concern. A motion, proposed by the coalition parties and supported by the opposition Greens, was passed on Friday (09.11.2012), saying that a blacklist threatens to become "an instrument to limit freedom of expression and impose widespread censorship on the Internet."
The motion called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to demand greater democracy, rule of law and compliance with human rights in Russia when she meets President Putin.
The topic is also likely to be raised when German and Russian business people, lawmakers and civic groups come together for the 12th annual Petersburg Dialogue in Moscow, which starts on Wednesday (14.11.2012). Freedom of information on the Internet is on the agenda there.
Russia's new youth protection law allows for the blocking of websites. Sites set up by the political opposition may also be affected if their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses coincide with those of websites deemed a threat. In July 2012, authorities blocked access for hours to the website of the prominent Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny. The Internet provider said it was because the site had the same IP address as an extremist site.
"The Internet has created a mechanism for censorship," says Pavel Rassudov, chairman of the Pirate Party of Russia. He sees the blacklist as the government's answer to the anti-Putin protest movement.
Florian Töpfl, a researcher at the London School of Economics, agrees. "The new law is a small additional element in the government's process of restricting the Russian opposition's civil rights and freedom of action," he told DW. The government has "tightened the reins" since the parliamentary elections in December 2011.
That election was overshadowed by accusations of election fraud and triggered a wave of protest against Putin. Following the presidential poll in March 2012 and Putin's return to the Kremlin, Russia enacted new laws curbing freedom of assembly and tightening regulations for NGOs. Authorities are investigating a number of opposition activists.
The Internet is of particular significance to Russia's opposition. In its 2012 Freedom on the Net report, the US organization Freedom House says that, in contrast to state-controlled television, the Internet in Russia is relatively free - there is no clear political censorship.
In touch via Facebook
For that reason, the opposition mainly organizes its anti-Putin protests via social networks such as Facebook. In October, about 70,000 users voted in an Internet election for an Opposition Coordination Council. "The Internet is very dangerous to Putin and his regime because it is the opposition's sphere of communication," Töpfl says.
Putin has promised not to touch Internet freedom in Russia. While the 60-year-old President says he rarely uses the Internet, Russians as a whole are quite active on the net. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), one out of two Russians had access to the Internet in 2011. Surveys show that more than 90 percent of young Russians regularly go online.
Bootleg movies, extremist propaganda or pornography - it takes but a few clicks to find them in the Russian Internet. "To a certain extent, this freedom will have to be curtailed over the coming years," Töpfl says. The question is in how far the Web will be affected as a political platform of opinion.
Töpfl warns: "This whole procedure with the blacklist and cooperation between state and providers could easily be applied eventually to political content as well. The infrastructure is in place."
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