Vladimir Putin, Internet Villain
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to have an intuitive understanding of the work of Richard Heeks. The British academic, who predicted the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, believes that countries with high levels of real-life oppression and lots of Internet freedom are most likely to experience revolutions.
Putin and Erdogan are responding in classic authoritarian style: Instead of reducing oppression, they're clamping down on access to the Internet.
Erdogan recently declared that he would not "leave this nation at the mercy of Facebook and YouTube," threatening to shut off access to both services after local elections later this month. This week's protests in Istanbul, which left two people dead, must have reinforced Erdogan's belief that the social networks serve only to provide his enemies with communication and propaganda channels.
Putin, for his part, moved decisively against Internet media critical of his actions. On Wednesday, Alexander Mamut, chairman of Rambler Afisha SUP, the holding company that owns the LiveJournal blog service and a number of popular websites, fired Galina Timchenko, editor of Lenta.ru, one of Russia's most popular websites with about 1.2 million daily visitors. The firing followed an official warning issued to Lenta for citing, neutrally, an anti-Russian rant by a Ukrainian ultranationalist. Timchenko's replacement, Alexei Goreslavsky, once ran a Kremlin-sponsored site, and the Lenta team saw the firing as politically motivated. Thirty-nine of 84 staffers, including 32 of 55 journalists, immediately resigned.
On Thursday, Russia's telecom regulator, on behalf of the prosecutor general, required Internet providers to block access to three anti-Putin opinion and commentary sites -- ej.ru, Grani.ru and Kasparov.ru, the latter operated by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Their alleged crime was "calling for illegal activity and the participation in mass rallies held in violation of the established order." The regulator also blocked opposition leader Alexei Navalny's LiveJournal blog, claiming the politician was not allowed to update it while under house arrest. Ekho Moskvy, Moscow's most popular talk radio station, was ordered to remove a mirror of the blog from its website or face a full blockage of the site. The station promptly obliged, though it says it will appeal the authorities' actions.
Russia's moves don't add up to a Great Chinese Firewall. They do, however, represent the biggest crackdown on Russian Web freedom yet -- and are clearly a consequence of Russia's invasion of Crimea. Putin is putting a squeeze on what his press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, recently termed "a nano fifth column" of critics. "This means the nation will soon be subjected to new torrents of lies," economist Sergei Aleksashenko wrote on his LiveJournal blog in what became one of the most widely shared posts on Russian social networks. Putin and his entourage sincerely believe the lies, he wrote, "because they have shut themselves off from all information sources that do not toe the party line."
Whether Putin believes his own propaganda, he has inundated television, the Kremlin-controlled press and even social networks with it. People who require a more multifaceted picture are already discussing ways to bypass a nationwide firewall when -- not if -- it is set up. At this point, the options are many, from using free public proxies provided by the likes of HideMyAss and ZenMate to switching to the Tor anonymous network, well-known to hackers and denizens of mail-order drug markets. Anonymizers that give a Russian user's computer an IP address from another country easily solve the problem of local blockages: A U.S. or, say, Hong Kong user can access any of the blocked sites.
The ease of bypassing blocks is no secret to Putin's cyberpolice. For now, they are just making it more difficult to use opposition resources in the hopes that most people won't want to waste their time on proxies, which tend to slow down browsing. Eventually, however, both Russian and Turkish users will need to rely on the experience of hackers who have been trying to pick apart the Chinese firewall since 2003, when it first came into existence.
China blocks Tor, using ingenious algorithms to track down machines trying to make connections to the encrypted network. Hackers must make a special effort to break through the defenses. Most publicly available proxy servers do not work in China, either: The addresses they employ are known to the Chinese Web police and are shut off. Right now, the only way to use Facebook and other blocked sites, including Bloomberg.com, is to subscribe to one of the smaller, lesser known paid virtual private network services. These are detected and cut off once in a while, but new ones spring up, allowing both Chinese people and visitors to venture outside the Great Firewall.
Curiosity and a thirst for information are impossible to stop these days. One would have to cut off Internet access completely to make any site truly unavailable. Many people will go to great lengths to retain sources they consider reliable and, at some point, to organize resistance. Once real-world oppression becomes unbearable, they will do more than subscribe to a VPN. As Ukraine's experience proves, they will sometimes pick up sticks and shields and fight on the barricades. Cracking down on Web freedoms is at best a temporary solution.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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