It’s hard to believe now, given his recent attacks on Internet freedoms, but, in December 1999, three days before he became acting president of Russia, Vladimir Putin made a solemn pledge to honor and protect Internet freedom of speech and commerce, recognizing the importance of this new industry for Russia’s modernization and general development. He summoned all the heads of Russia’s nascent Internet industry for a meeting, including me. At that time, I was known as the founder, chief editor, and CEO of Russia’s leading news websites, such as Gazeta.Ru, Lenta.Ru, Vesti.Ru, NTV.Ru (now NewsRu.com). I was also the planet’s first Russian blogger.
In his brief but passionate speech that day, Putin made special mention of Chinese and Vietnamese models of Internet regulation, stating that he viewed them as unacceptable. “Whenever we’ll have to choose between excessive regulation and protection of online freedom, we’ll definitely opt for freedom,” he concluded to the puzzlement and disbelief of everyone in the room. We all knew of his record as a KGB operative in charge of hunting down dissidents in Leningrad during the 1980s. Frankly, many of us thought that Putin’s words were more of a smokescreen than proof of serious intent. We were wary of the government, and expecting the worst.
Luckily, we were wrong.
It should be noted that, back then, the entire Russian Internet had less than 2 million users, and that’s including academics, bankers, IT professionals and some 200,000 home users nationwide. These were the netizens affluent enough to afford exorbitant prices for unreliable and lossy dialup access over the copper wires of urban telephone networks. Nowadays, Russia has 80 million users, and most of them have access to broadband.
As for Putin’s solemn oath to protect the Russian Internet from any undue and arbitrary attempts at government regulation, well, he honored it for the next 13 years. As keen as Putin was to control the federal nationwide TV channels, he seemed absolutely uninterested in regulating the Internet, be it the content, the cables, or the e-commerce. Any attempts by overzealous Russian lawmakers, ministers or law enforcement (the infamous siloviki, or strongmen) to regulate the Net were routinely aborted by Putin’s administration. Anyone who proposed such legislation to please the Kremlin soon found out that the Kremlin was very far from pleased. Internet regulation bills sponsored by everyone from Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to government ordinance drafts by ministers, and dozens of other proposals to regulate the Net had been quickly buried and forgotten for lack of presidential support between 2000 and 2012.
As a result, the Internet developed into Russia's only competitive industry. Companies like Yandex and VKontakte easily outperformed international competition (Google and Facebook, respectively) in Russian-speaking markets. These Russian start-ups did not copy successful American models, but rather the other way round: Almost every Yandex service (maps, payments, webmail, contextual advertising, etc.) was launched several years ahead of its Google-based analog. The VKontakte social network has many services and features that Facebook badly lacks, such as social music and video hosting and an advertising exchange, allowing any popular page or group to monetize its traffic almost automatically.
The Internet also became Russia’s only territory of unlimited free speech. Opposition figures, banned elsewhere in mass media, found easy access to their audiences by going online. Moreover, privately owned online media sources, such as Lenta.Ru, Gazeta.Ru, NewsRu.com and RBC News, used to outperform traditional mass media outlets in terms of audience and pageviews. Alexey Navalny, Russia's most prominent independent politician and Kremlin-basher, found millions of followers all over the country, despite being banned from all nationwide TV channels and radio stations for almost half a decade.
Several explanations have been offered for this strange phenomenon of Putin acting as the guardian angel of Internet freedom while curbing free speech in all other types of mass media. Either the president was convinced that the Russian Internet (known as RuNet) would always remain too small to be important, or he just didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of other G8 members by acting too Chinese. Or maybe he was truly confident in his advisors’ strategy of creating pro-government websites instead of shutting down anti-government ones. (That strategy, it should be added, served the advisors’ own financial interests to embezzle tons of government cash on phony online propaganda projects.)
In any case, when Putin had made his initial pledge not to interfere, he lived up to his promise for almost 13 years. Unfortunately, those 13 happy years are over now and we’re witnessing a fast and ruthless destruction of online freedom.
No one can say what subsequently made Putin change his mind about the dangers of online freedom. Some say he was impressed by the Twitter-fueled revolution in Moldova that brought down the pro-Russian communist government in 2009. I strongly doubt this assumption, because Putin wouldn’t have waited for three years after the Chisinau events to make his move. Others point to the Arab Spring as the turning point (Putin’s close associate and KGB crony Victor Sechin once officially and publicly blamed Google for masterminding the revolution in Egypt and “being behind” it). I disagree with this theory, too. Mubarak was no friend of Putin, and the guy who was (Colonel Qaddafi) was overthrown and killed by tribal warriors with no apparent Internet influence.
We should blame the 2011-2012 Moscow protests for Putin’s unexpected and instant conversion into a paranoid Internet-hater.
He made his change of mind public during a speech on April 24. Putin shocked the entire world with his epiphany that the Internet was initially created as a special CIA project, and is still run as such. Putin went on to claim that Yandex, Russia’s biggest and most successful Internet startup—ranked fourth in the world by number of search requests, valued at about $15 billion on NASDAQ in mid-February 2014, earning more revenues and profits in 2013 than any other media company in Russia—is also controlled by foreign intelligence seeking to harm Russia’s interests. Those remarks instantly brought Yandex shares down 5.5 percent. As of this writing, the company is now worth $9.19 billion, nearly $6 billion off its mid-February mark.
Putin’s new approach to the Internet helps explain the recent spate of online censorship laws passed by the Duma (the lower chamber of Russian parliament), and routinely rubberstamped by the Federation Council (Russia’s Senate). According to these new laws, any local or foreign website may be banned in Russia without explanation; and any blogger with a total audience over 3,000 readers must register as a mass-media institution with the government (this was included as part of the “antiterrorist legislation package” compiled after the Volgograd bus and railway bombings just ahead of the Olympics). Another law, proposed by deputy Irina Yarovaya of United Russia, would require anyone wishing to broadcast his or her views online to obtain a permit from the government. Yet another, proposed by one of her colleagues, would require anyone wishing to register a webpage to pay 1,000 roubles up front.
Nor have companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google escaped Putin’s crackdown. Under the new laws, any social media platform that wishes to serve a Russian audience will be obliged to retain all user data for at least six months and to surrender this information to Russian security services upon request, without a court ruling or any other form of justification or explanation. Moreover, any foreign social media platform serving Russian users has to physically keep all sensible user data within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. And we’re not talking Russian user data, but rather all personal information of any user who happens to have some readers from Russia—like, say, Barack Obama, who has no less than 3,000 Russian nationals among the 40.5 million subscribers to his Facebook page. Twitter should also prepare to move all of Obama’s personal data to Russia and hand it over to the FSB, since both Putin and Medvedev are his followers on Twitter. Ditto for Google. If any of these companies don’t comply they would be subject to administrative fines, up to 500,000 roubles ($14,000), and Russian ISPs would have to block access to these platforms.
This Orwellian masterpiece of legislation was signed into law by Vladimir Putin on May 5, 2014, and it will be enforced from August 1, 2014. Will that be the last day of Russian Internet? Maybe. Unless a new law kills it even faster.