Although only about 15 million Russians -- roughly 10 percent of the population -- regularly access the Internet, the reach of news or information posted on the Internet could extend to as much as one-third of the population, according to Ivan Zasurskii, deputy general director of Rambler. In an interview with "Novaya gazeta," No. 45, he noted that all urban populations have access to information from the Internet via "horizontal channels" of communication. For example, radio talk-show hosts and DJs regularly pick up "hot" themes from the Internet and immediately broadcast them. If Zasurskii is correct, will the Internet's expanding reach attract increased attention from authorities?
After all, government restrictions on the media under President Vladimir Putin appear to be directly proportional to a particular medium's influence. Television, the most popular media sector, is subject to the most controls, while newspapers face considerably less scrutiny. Which path will the Internet, currently one of Russia's most vibrant information realms, take in the future?
At present, at least two efforts are under way to draft legislation to regulate the Internet in Russia, and these efforts could bear fruit as early as next year. Last month, State Duma Deputy Vladimir Tarachev (Unified Russia) told "Russkii fokus," No. 21, that he has been working on a bill with an initiative group for the past three years, adding that it is 95 percent ready. After a group based in the Federation Council submits its version to the Duma, the members of Tarachev's group will present their draft, which will serve as the Duma's alternative version.
Tarachev, who is a member of the Duma Banking Committee, said this is unlikely to happen before the end of this year. About two weeks earlier, Dmitrii Mezentsev, chairman of the Federation Council's Information Policy Committee, told a press conference in Moscow that he is part of a working group that is also preparing legislation to regulate the Internet, Interfax reported on 3 June. Mezentsev said his group is still not sure whether a separate law on the Internet is needed or whether the new version of the law on mass media currently being drafted should be augmented. He also said the shape of the new bill will not be determined before next year.
Details of Tarachev's and Mezentsev's plans followed months of denials that a project to draft a new law on the Internet was in the works. Duma Information Policy Committee Chairman Valerii Komissarov (Unified Russia) and committee Deputy Chairman Boris Reznik (Unified Russia) stated categorically in March that their committee is not working on legislation to regulate the Internet (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 15 April 2004). However, Reznik noted that attempts to draft such legislation have been repeatedly undertaken, and the last of these was an initiative by a deputy from the last Duma, Aleksandr Shubin (Union of Rightist Forces). In 2000, Reznik, Komissarov, and Konstantin Vetrov, a Liberal Democratic Party of Russia deputy who was then chairman of the Information Policy Committee, were part of a working group to develop a law on the Internet. Their focus was drafting a law that would protect intellectual-property rights and regulate other economic-related issues.
One difference between that attempt and the latest initiatives will likely be a new emphasis on regulating Internet content. Mezentsev denied that he and his colleagues are even discussing the introduction of any censorship on the web. However, he also said he would consider banning information that could pose a threat to people's lives or security. In addition, Lyudmila Narusova, the Federation Council representative for the Tuva Republic's legislature and a member of Mezentsev's working group, gave an interview with "Novye izvestiya" on 3 June in which she said she favors increasing state control over the Internet because it has become "a cesspool." "On the Internet, one can find the most incredible rumors, including some that denigrate people's reputations," Narusova said. "And while one can sue a newspaper, this is virtually impossible with the Internet."
Some analysts linked the new legislative efforts with a broader trend of expanding state influence over civil society. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 3 June, media-law expert Fedor Kravchenko commented that the purpose of the new bills most likely is to increase state control over the Internet. "Just as now not one television company can escape the Kremlin's grip, in the same way, most likely, they would like some instrument of control over information on the Internet," Kravchenko said. "Today, this sphere is too uncontrolled."
Other analysts see commercial interests driving the process. Anton Nosik, editor of lenta.ru, told a press conference in Moscow in May that Tarachev's Internet bill was developed in extreme secrecy and that the people behind it are not interested in censorship per se, but in a "redistribution of property in the virtual market, which they have finally noticed and want to get their hands on." Participating in a panel at RFE/RL on 10 June, Glasnost Defense Foundation head Aleksei Simonov said his organization's priority is to preserve the law on mass media in its current form. He predicted that finishing a draft law on the Internet could take many years, considering that the law on mass media has required almost a decade so far.
In an interview with "Novaya gazeta," No. 45, Zasurskii expressed doubt about what the government could really do to control the Internet even if it wants to. "You have to be realistic," he said. "How many websites are there on the Internet? Imagine that a chief commissar for regulation of the Internet in Russia has been appointed. He should present a plan for finally regulating Internet news. He will need a budget of $5 billion. He will need around 200-300 specialists. Who will do this? Who needs this? The Matrix will never try to control everything. Because when you try to control everything, you weaken yourself. It is necessary to control [only] the most important." He also noted that is easy to make an electronic publication out of the reach of authorities: "You simply relocate it to the United States and put it out in Russian. Such is the case with newsru.com. Try and shut down newsru.com, please."
According to Zasurskii, the conflict is really a centuries-old one in Russia between conservative forces and a modernizing elite that is using a new technology that is impossible to wipe out.