As censorship of the traditional media increased under President Vladimir Putin, the Internet quickly carved out a niche as a rare bastion of dissent and free expression for Russians. With its lively blogs and chat rooms, the Russian Internet has become the 21st-century equivalent of Soviet-era samizdat and hushed, kitchen-table political discussion.
Are the bureaucrats and government censors finally preparing to stifle this last oasis of media freedom?
According to Oleg Panfilov, a free press advocate who heads the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, the Russian authorities have been wary of the Internet's growing importance for years.
"They are afraid. This fear of the Internet emerged about four years ago when the Kremlin saw how it became the main source of information during the Orange Revolution," Panfilov, who himself writes a popular blog on the website "LiveJournal," says.
A decree from the Information Technologies and Communications Ministry, made public on February 26, requires all telecommunication companies and ISPs to allow the Federal Security Service (FSB) unrestricted monitoring of all communications -- phone calls, text messages, and e-mails.
Telecoms and ISPs are also required to install, at their own expense, equipment allowing the FSB to monitor communications at any time without the provider's -- or the user's -- knowledge. The equipment costs as much as $100,000. The decree is related to a program called SORM-2, which was introduced in 1998 to allow the FSB to monitor the Internet.
Separately, a provision in a new bill on investment working its way through parliament would forbid foreigners from acquiring majority stakes in ISPs without express government permission.
Insiders say the legislation is likely to face strong opposition from within the industry.
"I don't think it is very realistic to pass such a law, because there is a strong lobby against it. There are already a lot of companies that have a high level of foreign shareholders," Aleksandr Militsky, who runs a website that monitors ISPs, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.
While state-controlled television and most print media dutifully reported the government line with fawning coverage of Putin and his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, blogs like "LiveJournal" and news sites like newsru.com were critical, animated, and irreverent.
Robert Amsterdam, an attorney on jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky's international defense team and the author of an influential blog on Russian affairs, says the emerging trend toward greater state control reflects an entrenched Kremlin view that managing the media is an important aspect of defending national security.
"This is all going in one direction," Amsterdam says of the emerging Kremlin strategy. "One of the things I don't think any of us understand well enough is the extent to which the Russians view this as part of their security -- the securitization of media. And this comes under this whole format of seeing free communications as somehow being a security threat. My view is that they have been late jumping on the Internet bandwagon and they are going to continue this under [President-elect] Medvedev. At least that is how it appears."
In March, Putin established a new federal agency to regulate media and the Internet and oversee content. A month later, authorities used loopholes in the law to shut down the Siberian online publication "Novy Fokus" for failing to register as a news organization despite the fact that Russian law does not explicitly require online news sites to register.
Vladimir Slutsker, a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament, is now seeking to make registration mandatory. Slutsker recently told the daily "Kommersant" that legislation was needed to stop "irresponsible journalists from spreading rumors and hiding behind anonymous websites."
After a website published rumors linking Slutsker and his wife to criminal activity, he introduced legislation requiring all websites with more than 1,000 hits a day to register with the government as media outlets. If Slutsker's bill becomes law, Russia's popular blogs and news sites would need to apply for licenses and be subject to the same regulations as print and broadcast media.
Analysts have labeled Slutsker's bill impractical given the sheer volume of websites and the difficultly tracking them, adding that the time when the authorities could realistically control the Internet is long gone.
"This attempt to register websites like mass media is stupid," Panfilov says. "It is simply not possible. It is just the desire of a couple of deputies, but it won't happen. Just imagine, how do you register blogs? Also, the meters monitoring web traffic in Russia all give different information."
Panfilov adds that a system similar to what exists in China, where the state controls the Internet and blocks websites it deems subversive, is not possible in Russia today. He notes that unlike in China, most Russian ISPs are privately owned and more difficult to control.
"They needed to do this 10 years ago," Panfilov says. "Then they could have controlled it. Now it is practically impossible. Now enough people know how to use satellite servers, they know how to access the Internet via mobile communications, they know a lot. And to isolate Russia from the Internet is not possible."
Some Russia watchers say the Kremlin isn't interested in Chinese-style controls. Amsterdam points out that Russia's media control strategy -- which allows for opposition newspapers like "Novaya gazeta" and radio stations like Ekho Moskvy -- is more sophisticated than that.
"You're missing the boat if you don't think they can control it," Amsterdam says. "What we need to understand is that they are not trying to, and don't have to control 100 percent of it. One of the things that the survival of 'Novaya gazeta' and [radio station] Ekho Moskvy shows is that they are very happy for liberals to talk to liberals. They just don't want liberals talking to anybody else."
Amsterdam adds that a combination of intimidation, selective use of libel laws, cooptation, and other means has been very effective in controlling the print and broadcast media.
And there are indications that such time-proven mechanisms can be of use to the authorities in the modern media environment as well.
Recent charges against blogger Savva Terentyev for allegedly "inciting hate" against police officers through his "LiveJournal" posts serve as one example. Terentyev faces a possible $4,000 fine or up to two years in prison.
"The attack on the Internet can be this subtle incremental attack," Amsterdam says "Let's be clear, it's multidimensional. Look what they have done to the regular press. Look what they have done to television. They have been so successful with a mixture of cooptation, which is having rich friends buy assets, with the incremental intimidation of self-censorship which is done very well, that they probably don't feel that they have to [control it entirely]."