By Paul Goble
Nearly one Russian in four now goes online on a daily basis, and almost half of those who do use the Internet to get their news, a challenge to the Kremlin’s control of much of the electronic media and a development that is prompting some of the powers that be to look at the way in which Belarus and Turkmenistan are trying to control the web.
Today, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) released the results of its latest poll on Russian use of the Internet. According to the firm, 46 percent of Russians now have a personal computer, and 40 percent of the population uses them to connect to the Internet (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/13386.html).
More than four out of five of those going online do so at home rather than at work, thus limiting the ability of employers to control the way in which Russians make use of the web, even though most respondents in the VTsIOM survey say that they use the Internet “chiefly for work or study.”
Increasingly over the last several years, the poll found, Russians use the Internet for email, 51 percent now compared to 42 percent in 2008, for getting news, 49 percent compared to 48 percent, to find people with similar views, 28 percent compared to nine percent, and for entertainment and purchases of goods and services.
Not surprisingly, Internet use is highest in the capitals, among younger and more educated people, and among those who are financially better off, but use of the net appears to be spreading to other groups in the population relatively rapidly, with the share of people saying they never use the Internet falling dramatically.
Given that access to the Internet reduces the ability of the Russian powers that be to control the messages the citizenry receives, Moscow is increasingly considering adopting draconian measures like those in Turkmenistan and Belarus to limit access to the net or at least to intimidate some so that they will not make use of it for news.
In an interview with Baltinfo.ru this week, Aleksey Vlasov, an influential Moscow analyst says that “Russia is step by step approaching the models of many countries of the post-Soviet space” regarding control over information and especially the Internet (www.baltinfo.ru/tops/Terroristy-v-SMI-Kollektivnyi-dogovor-protiv-zakonodatelnoi-palki-137827).
Discussions about control of the information space in post-Soviet countries are “far from new,” Vlasov continues. Governments engage in it “for various reasons but by similar measures. Thus, in Kazakhstan, it was recently required that all sites be hosted only on the territory of the republic so that the owners of Internet portals could be found.”
Belarus and Turkmenistan have gone the furthest, the Moscow analyst says, but “Russia step by step is moving toward these republics in a the understanding of the Internet sphere as an ‘out of control’ element which must be put in order and held under tight control,” even if there is no agreement yet on just what methods to adopt.
The current anti-terrorist “hysteria,” he suggests, is likely to cover major moves to control access to the Internet in the name of defending “state interests” and the population from future terrorist attacks. That is all the more likely if more information comes to light about the use of the Internet by terrorist groups.
But one of the main issues that will have to be addressed soon is whether the blogosphere is “a mass media.”
If Russian officials ultimately decide that it is, then they will be in a position to demand the closure of “hundreds of blogs,” something that would seriously restrict what is now the freest part of the Russian media.
Even if the powers that be take that step, Vlasov concludes, it is still “unknown how far [they might yet go to impose] total control.” At the very least, moves to tighter government control over the Internet in Russia will set off another competition between offense and defense in this area much as they have in other countries.
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