Russia has taken another major step toward restricting its once freewheeling Internet, as President Vladimir V. Putin quietly signed a new law requiring popular online voices to register with the government, a measure that lawyers, Internet pioneers and political activists said Tuesday would give the government a much wider ability to track who said what online.
Mr. Putin’s action on Monday, just weeks after he disparaged the Internet as “a special C.I.A. project,” borrowed a page from the restrictive Internet playbooks of many governments around the world that have been steadily smothering online freedoms they once tolerated.
The idea that the Internet was at best a controlled anarchy and beyond any one nation’s control is fading globally amid determined attempts by more and more governments to tame the web. If innovations like Twitter were hailed as recently as the Arab uprisings as the new public square, governments like those in China, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and now Russia are making it clear that they can deploy their tanks on virtual squares, too.
China, long a pioneer in using sophisticated technology to filter the Internet, has continually tightened censorship. It has banned all major Western online social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, though it seems not to be bothered by Alibaba, its homegrown e-commerce site, which has filed the paperwork for what could be the biggest public stock offering ever.
Nevertheless, even Beijing’s own social media champion, Weibo, valued at $3.6 billion in a public stock offering this year, has come under mounting censorship pressure as the government fine-tunes its policing of expression.
Under the pressure of a corruption scandal, Turkey recently imposed bans on Twitter and YouTube over tapes alleging corruption by the country’s prime minister. Although the YouTube ban remains, Twitter service was restored in April only after the Constitutional Court overturned the ban.
During protests against the government in Venezuela in February, there were reports that the government there was blocking online images from users. In recent years, Pakistan has banned 20,000 to 40,000 websites, including YouTube, saying they offend Muslims. Facebook was blocked for a while in 2010, but is now accessible.
Widely known as the “bloggers law,” the new Russian measure specifies that any site with more than 3,000 visitors daily will be considered a media outlet akin to a newspaper and be responsible for the accuracy of the information published.
Besides registering, bloggers can no longer remain anonymous online, and organizations that provide platforms for their work such as search engines, social networks and other forums must maintain computer records on Russian soil of everything posted over the previous six months.
Mr. Putin has already used the pliable Russian Parliament to pass laws that scattered the opposition, hobbled nongovernmental organizations and shut down public protests. Now, riding a wave of popular support after hosting the Winter Olympics and annexing Crimea, he has turned his attention to regulating the Internet, as well as burnishing his credentials as the worldwide champion of conservative values.
Speaking in St. Petersburg in late April, Mr. Putin voiced his suspicions about the Internet, even while noting that it had become a public market of huge proportions.
“You know that it all began initially, when the Internet first appeared, as a special C.I.A. project,” he said in remarks broadcast live nationally, before adding that “special services are still at the center of things.” He specifically thanked Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor granted asylum in Russia, for revealing to the world how efficient the N.S.A. was at collecting information.
Mr. Putin went on to say that someone writing online whose opinion affects thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people should be considered a media outlet. He said he was not talking about a ban, only acting “the way it is done all over the world.”
Russian Internet pioneers despaired that Mr. Putin was really talking about the Chinese model of curtailing any political discussion online.
“It is part of the general campaign to shut down the Internet in Russia,” said Anton Nossik, an early online media figure here. “They have not been able to control it until now, and they think they should implement the Chinese model. But they don’t understand how it works. The Chinese model also stimulates the development of local platforms, while the Russian laws are killing the local platform.”
Russia is among a growing list of countries that have sought to shut down Internet voices circumventing a subservient national news media. Many leaders see the Internet as the key tool behind antigovernment demonstrations and are determined to render it ineffective.
Yet polls conducted in 24 countries last spring by Pew Research found that most people are against government censorship of the Internet, including 63 percent in Russia and 58 percent in Turkey.
Another Russian Internet law, one that went into effect on Feb. 1, gave the government the power to block websites. It immediately used the law against its most vocal critics, like Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, as well as online news sites that reported on demonstrations and other political activity.
Thanks to NEIL MacFARQUHAR and The New York Times, and
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