Does the Russian government think the Internet could organize a "colored" revolution in Russia?
Dmitrii Frolov, a top Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) official, told legislators in Russia this week that the service considers it necessary to increase its control over the Internet on the grounds that it is winning "an ever larger audience and becoming a serious player on the information field capable of shaping public opinion." Frolov also called for the mandatory registration of mobile phones with Internet access. While the FSB's calls for greater regulation of the Internet is hardly new, its appeals had previously been based on the need to stem the spread of pornography and information about how to build bombs and other explosives, according to gazeta.ru on 28 April.
The response from Russian information technology (IT) experts was predictably skeptical that authorities could -- even if they wanted to -- effectively filter the torrent of information flowing over the fiber optic cables and satellites linking Russia to the Internet. Igor Ashmanov, general director of the Internet company Ashmanov and Partners, told gazeta.ru on 28 April that "the Chinese model is possible only in those countries where all spheres of communication are totally controlled." All of Russia's Internet service providers (ISPs) would have to route their traffic to a single server, he said. And if state officials tried to implement such a program, private ISPs would drag the responsible government agency through the courts, Ashmanov explained in an earlier interview with the website on 26 January.
People who track the level of freedom of the Internet from government regulation often use China as a kind of negative measuring stick. China reportedly has 50,000 people employed full time overseeing the Internet. It also employs powerful filtering devices that screen electronic messages. But as so often happens, state authorities are rarely limber enough to remain a step ahead of advances in technology. And China has proved no different.
According to "The New York Times" on 25 April, the thousands of Chinese who poured out onto the streets in several cities for anti-Japanese rallies were organized via e-mail, instant online messaging, and text messaging on cell phones. Political organizers were able to get people out over the course of several weeks despite a total ban on coverage of the protests in the state media. According to the daily, in one test, when the words "anti-Japanese protest" were typed into an online message service, an automatic response was triggered that the message could not be sent because it contains "sensitive or uncivilized" words. But when the same phrase was sent via mobile phone text messaging, delivery occurred without a hitch.
China is only the latest country where the mobile phone has proved mightier than the state-controlled pen. In Ukraine, the youth movement Pora had to operate under less rigid strictures than opposition groups face in China but, like groups in China, Pora members faced police harassment and a national television environment that was all but closed off to the political opposition. During the lead-up to the October presidential elections, only Channel 5 provided favorable coverage to opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, but its broadcasting reach does not extend far beyond Kyiv.
Pora and other opposition groups, nevertheless, managed to provide an alternative view of the leading candidate in the race, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. For example, Pora posted on its website video footage -- courtesy of Channel 5 -- of a now famous incident in which the 200-pound-plus Yanukovych was felled by a single raw egg in a very dramatic fall. Pora and other opposition groups also posted the hundreds of jokes inspired by the incident to ridicule Yanukovych.
The group's website (pora.org.ua) also provided an invaluable means of keeping groups members and sympathizers throughout Ukraine up to date on group activities. Pora used their site to recruit people for various tasks, such as to attend rallies or monitor elections. They also created a "chronicle of repression" which detailed the almost daily police harassment of members. Pora also made extensive use of its members' cell phones. At one point the organization even hosted a contest to come up with the most interesting motto using Pora to send a text message to "Mobile Pora" members. In an interview with Cafe Babel in March 2005, Vladyslav Kaskiw, a Pora coordinator, said "We compiled a database of our members mobile telephone numbers so that we can exert the most pressure in the same place at the same time. We use the Internet to broadcast our ideas and to recruit. Without these technologies, we could never have succeeded."
In their use of the Internet and available information technology, Pora was following a path already forged by the Serbian youth movement Otpor, whose members used coded short-text messaging on cell phones to coordinate their actions. Their movement's website provided information to members and outsiders about events in Serbia and served an alternative forum amidst the attempts by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic to control the country's airwaves.
For forces hoping to prevent any repetition of what happened in Serbia or Ukraine, the important role played by mobile phones and the Internet has already been duly noted. In his remarks to the Federation Council this week, Frolov noted that various groups have used the Internet to mobilize political forces against authorities and cited the examples of Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine. And in his comments to gazeta.ru, Ashmanov spoke not only about the impossibility of reining in the Russian segment of the Internet but he also speculated that Frolov's declaration is the FSB's reaction to the recent "colored" revolutions. Ashmanov also noted that a new department within the presidential administration, headed by Modest Kolerov, formerly of regnum.ru and polit.ru, was created around the time of these revolutions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). So far, Kolerov has kept a low profile, but with Frolov's recent pronouncements, Internet watchers will be on the lookout to see whether Russia will try to follow in China's footsteps.