Putin Might Be Winning The War On Russia’s Internet

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Vladimir Putin is waging two battles that will define the future of Russia.

One is for control of Eastern Ukraine. The other, with perhaps more far-reaching consequences, is for control of Russia's Internet.

The outcome in Ukraine remains uncertain.

But step by step, Putin is winning control of his country's Internet. In the process, he is stifling online voices of opposition while spreading fear and uncertainty among those who dare challenge his policies.

This movement comes against a backdrop of a Russian media that historically has been subservient to the interests of the state and only recently has experimented with independence.

During the past two weeks, as I have traveled across Russia delivering lectures on free press values, I have encountered countless journalists who openly confess to practicing self-censorship out of fear of government reprisal.

For many, including aspiring journalists studying communications at universities, the Western concept of a healthy adversarial relationship between press and government is difficult to grasp. Decades after the end of the Cold War, a widely held view still prevails that news outlets exist to promote the objectives of the state.

A student journalist in the Siberian city of Yakutsk told me it would be "unthinkable….unacceptable" to even ask local officials about the process of awarding contracts to build public roads or buildings.

Sergei Bulakh, a journalism broadcasting professor at Vladivostok State University in the Russian Far East, said vagueness and unpredictable enforcement of Russian media laws makes journalists reluctant to pursue aggressive reporting.

Because it can be considered illegal for journalists to fail to notify authorities immediately of the existence of a possible crime, he said, news outlets often look the other way rather than pursue time-consuming investigations into official corruption.

In recent weeks, Putin signed a new law aimed at silencing opposition bloggers by requiring that any with more than 3,000 daily visitors must register with the government. They would be treated like a mass media outlet, such as a newspaper, and be held responsible for factual accuracy – however that is defined.

Bloggers who must register would no longer be permitted to remain anonymous. This means that critics of Putin's policies, as well as anti-corruption whistle-blowers, must identify themselves.

More chilling, the networks that host these bloggers would be required to maintain computer records of their sites on Russian servers. The Russian security service would be entitled to access everything posted on a registered blogger's site over the previous six months.

In recent years, Putin has exerted near total control over Russia's most influential media outlets.

Once freewheeling independent newspapers and television stations have come under state domination or been taken over by those loyal to Putin. In some cases, independent television channels have simply gone off the air.

A possible next target is Twitter. In the past week, a high-ranking official with the government agency that oversees the Internet labeled Twitter as a "political" tool that undermines the government's authority.

Maxim Ksenzov, deputy head of Roskomnadzor, suggested that shutting off Twitter might be necessary to counter "the damage that is being done to Russian society."

His comments were quickly criticized by other government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. But U.S. officials in Moscow speculated that Ksenzov's comments were calculated to gauge public reaction to ending Twitter – or to send a message that U.S.-based Twitter could be blocked if used to mobilize opposition to the Kremlin.

Twitter and other social media networks were used to organize protests that prompted the ouster of Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych.

The law requiring the registration of bloggers is set to take effect August 1. It allows for significant penalties for those found in violation, including fines that can exceed $140,000 and also the closing of the blog.

U.S. officials in Moscow say that Putin's control of the media is so pervasive that television stations now coordinate coverage of Russia's attempt to regain control of eastern Ukraine. Constant pro-Putin coverage, they say, is helping to further bolster the Russian leader's standing as he taps into nationalistic sentiments that have elevated him to record popularity, according to credible public opinion polls.

Andy Alexander is a former Washington Post ombudsman and current journalism professor at Ohio University