Kremlin Control of Russian Internet Rising, OSC Says

04.06.10 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Russian-language internet is increasingly subject to control by the Russian government and its allies in the private sector, according to a new report (pdf) from the DNI Open Source Center (OSC). Except for a vocal minority of bloggers and human rights activists, the Russian public is mostly indifferent to or even supportive of government controls on the internet, the OSC report said.

“Over the last several years, pro-government oligarchs have accumulated significant stakes in the leading portals of the Russian Internet [or Runet]. Between them, they own the majority of the most popular Russian social networking sites and the majority of the most popular Russian websites,” the OSC found.

“While media outlets owned by government companies have not yet shown signs of censorship, the leadership and owners of these Russian investment companies are close to the Kremlin and may be willing to cede their business interests to government priorities,” the OSC report said.

A copy of the OSC analysis was obtained by Secrecy News and posted on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. See “Kremlin Allies’ Expanding Control of Runet Provokes Only Limited Opposition,” OSC Media Aid, February 28, 2010.

“Although some independent bloggers and press sources raised concerns at the growing government presence in the Internet, the public is probably unaware of the extent to which the Runet is owned by Kremlin allies,” the report said. “Most buy-outs were not well publicized, appearing only in specialized business dailies that reported only the fact of the deal.”

The OSC itemized several of the most important private acquisitions of Russian websites and identified their proprietors.

So, for example, “Oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who is known to cooperate with the Kremlin, owns RosBiznesKonsalting (RBC), which has been quietly gobbling up Russian Internet (Runet) domains, holding 21% of the Runet’s sites, according to its last annual report in 2007, including Loveplanet.ru, the second-most popular online dating service in the Runet.”

In any case, “most Russians are not overly concerned about censorship in general or censorship of the Internet. Most actually support censoring the Internet,” according to the OSC. “Those who do react negatively to threats to Internet freedom tend to be opposition members or human rights activists who would be directly affected by censorship.”

Thus, opposition blogger Oleg Kozyrev and reporter Oleg Salmanov wrote in 2008, “The Russian Internet community is following with alarm the social networks passing under the control of those who are loyal to the authorities and responsive to their requests.”

The first criminal conviction in Russia for comments posted on a blog also took place in 2008, the OSC noted. Savva Terentyev received a one-year suspended prison sentence for describing police as “filth” and writing that “a corrupt cop should be ceremonially burnt daily” in every town square. He acknowledged writing the comments but pleaded not guilty to charges of extremism.

“The Russian Government does not need to own the Runet in order to monitor or control it,” the OSC concluded. “It has numerous laws and policies in place that allow it to limit or threaten open discussion on the Internet. Portals owned by Kremlin allies do not yet exhibit signs of censorship, but their acquisitions provide officials an additional lever to control the content of the Runet if the Kremlin feels threatened.”

An appendix to the OSC report, which was marked For Official Use Only, profiles the major private investors in the Russian internet. A second appendix lists the top 100 Russian websites, along with their owners.