Russia’s Internet: censorship, copyright and cronies

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Just as in other BRICs, Internet use in Russia is increasing rapidly, averaging 30% growth per annum.  The country is also experiencing a social media boom – according to some sources, it has the most socially engaged media population on the planet. However, the Russian government’s approach to Internet use by its population is complicated and apparently contradictory.

These contradictions revolve around the government’s approach to Internet regulation. On the one hand, censorship is increasing. The most recent Freedom House report suggests that Internet censorship and arrests of bloggers has increased. At least 25 cases of blogger harassment, including 11 arrests, were registered between January 2009 and May 2010, compared with seven in 2006–08, and incidents of content blockage – particularly on a regional level – have increased. Recent reports of attempts to enforce government control of Skype and Gmail confirm this trend. In addition, links between the Russian business/political nexus and control of Internet access appears strong, at least in some striking examples, leading to further questions about state censorship.  For example, oligarch Alisher Usmanov, a key stakeholder in DST-Global, recently acquired a significant stake in Twitter. The company is also the largest corporate stakeholder in Facebook, purchased in 2008. Importantly, Usmanov’s business partner is Yuri Milner, the Kremlin’s new Internet copyright/ censorship czar (depending on whom you read).

In contrast, President Dimitry Medvedev’s recent comments at the G8 focus on Internet openness, of a sort. Following the e-G8 meeting with key Internet stakeholders and CEOs – the first of its sort – he advocated relaxed copyright laws and regulation, especially in contrast to proposals presented by other G8 members,  particularly France. This may in part be a response to Russia’s notoriously lax standards of copyright enforcement: overall, copyright crime in Russia is significant, and enforcement is declining. Some argue that this decline results from pushback by Russia’s business community, with its links into internecine Russian politics. Indeed, the IIPA is increasingly concerned about legislative moves to further decrease culpability for digital copyright crime in Russia, and Russia’s failure to enforce copyright reportedly stands as a barrier to its entry into the WTO .

So Medvedev’s stance may be simply directed at domestic business concerns, particularly given upcoming elections – the issue was certainly prefigured domestically before the e-G8 meeting. Despite this, it is an oddly global platform from which to launch this message, particularly given the WTO angle. However, global business interest in Russian Internet companies is likely at an all-time high after the enormously successful recent Yandex float and given the prominence of local tech operators in the local market, which has avoided colonisation by outside operators relatively successfully.

Given this, Medvedev’s comments are more likely a signal to the global and domestic business communities regarding the government’s attitude to copyright enforcement and Internet investment risk, particularly given his recent comments on the role of innovation in resurrecting Russia’s shattered economy: the Internet sector is forecast to grow much faster than other, traditionally dominant, Russian sectors.  In siding with Internet giants at the G8 he emphasises his government’s tech-cred; in focusing on copyright innovation he messages his domestic business constituency and also  international investors interested in a copyright-lax safehaven, especially considering recent high-profile crackdowns in other OECD jurisdictions and the possibility of stronger international cooperation on enforcement.

What does this mean for International Relations? First, like the ongoing tension between the US and the EU on data privacy issues , it suggests that the Internet is subject to state power and interests played out on a global scale – ie not only in terms of domestic censorship, where this power is exercised inwards. As Drezner (2004) suggests, contra scholarship which links globalisation/the Internet to the decline of the state, the Internet offers another domain for the exercise of state power and interests rather than simply a symbol of its diminution. Putin’s recent call for greater ‘internationalisation’ of Internet regulation is relevant here.

Second, DST-Global’s position raises questions about investment in social media by corporations linked to states with strong censorship agendas. Especially given recent concern regarding Facebook’s privacy practices, what scrutiny should  the company’s dealings with such corporations attract, given the potential impact on citizens? As a US company, how are Facebook’s state-linked investors consistent with US foreign policy which emphasises the Internet as a vehicle of democracy? Does it matter? It might not matter at all if Facebook/Twitter were not so dominant in social media. And given China’s reported recent interest in acquiring a stake in Facebook, as well as overtures from Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds, this issue may grow in importance, or at least in the potential for embarrassment.

Third, the links between DST Global’s senior personnel and Russian politics highlight the role Internet CEOS play in international politics. And Medvedev recently included Yandex CEO Arkady Volozh in his ‘Golden 100′ list of reformers, a move seen by some as part of power plays between the President and Prime Minister, or at the very least, domestic politicking.  In addition, the  e-G8,  Facebook and Google’s meetings with US and UN representatives, and Facebook’s ‘diplomatic corps’ point to Internet CEOs being increasingly relevant international actors in their own right. Unlike other CEOs, these actors have identities which arguably resonate with citizens/consumers in a particular way, and a potentially direct line of communication to them which they are not always reluctant to use.  Neither NGOs nor IGOs, and with distinct national identities, their role is arguably increasingly important.

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One Response to Russia’s Internet: censorship, copyright and cronies

  1. Antonia says:

    Sarah, this post raises some very interesting issues. I agree that it is a concern when corporations closely connected to governments with strong censorship agendas invest in social media, and I was unaware of Russian investment in fb. Thank you for drawing attention to this. Unelected bureaucrats and/or corporate executives are going to have an increasingly significant influence on international relations; it will be interesting to see how governments along the democratic spectrum react. Indeed, I wonder what capacity they will have to deal with this influence.