MOSCOW, April 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The conference brought together some 200 experts from over 50 countries to discuss ways of jointly fighting web crimes and regulating Internet content.
Opening the conference Nurgaliyev said that online criminals could cause as much harm as weapons of mass destruction, and called on the international community to join forces against cybercrime. No government, he said, can combat this type of crime single-handedly.
Today, Russia and former Soviet countries provide a large proportion of the world's hackers. A number of damaging computer viruses are believed to have originated in Russia.
Russian hackers have been blamed for a series of high-profile online extortion schemes over the past few years in which big businesses were threatened with the loss of their website unless they handed over protection money.
In 2004, a group of Russian and British hackers was busted after swindling $70 million from British gaming firms.
Boris Miroshnikov, the head of the Russian Interior Ministry's Bureau for Counteracting High-Tech Crimes, told the Moscow conference that the number of registered Internet crimes in Russia has increased tenfold over the past five years. In 2005, Russian authorities recorded 14,810 such crimes.
Online scammers also extort billions of dollars globally every year by posing as banks to hack into databases and con web surfers out of their money.
According to Nurgaliyev, Russian banks are under growing attack from hackers.
The problem is compounded by the explosion of Internet use in Russia. While an estimated 2 million Russians had Internet access in the mid-1990s, Russia's online community today represents roughly 16 percent of the population, or nearly 24 million people.
Internet use in Russia, however, is still limited compared to Europe, where almost 50 percent of the population has Internet access.
Russian officials at the conference also expressed particular concern over the widespread dissemination of racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic material on the Internet.
Boris Miroshnikov said Russia currently has about 40 ultranationalist and extremist websites, a quarter of which operate through a Russian provider.
The State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, has long been talking about the need for new legislation to regulate the Internet. One deputy famously called the Internet a "cesspool."
This debate was revived in January after Aleksandr Koptsev, a 20-year old man who professed to visiting ultranationalist websites, broke into a Moscow synagogue and stabbed eight worshippers.
Koptsev also reportedly played a popular computer game in which a postman goes on a killing spree just hours before the attack.
In response to the incident,Pavel Krasheninnikov, the chairman of the Duma's Legislative Committee, said his committee is drafting a package of bills to prohibit the dissemination of extremist information via the Internet and computer games.
That the Internet is becoming a vital tool for white-supremacist groups in Russia is no secret. While Chechen rebel websites have been closed down in Russia, ultranationalist websites continue to operate openly.
Yury Belyayev, a leading neo-Nazi ideologue in St. Petersburg, recently told RFE/RL that his movement relied heavily on the Internet to coordinate its operations, maintain contact with members across the country, and draw new recruits.
His group's website has welcomed recent attacks and killings of foreigners in St. Petersburg under a section titled "The city cleanup continues." Today, it called on its members to, in its words, "establish order" in the city to mark Hitler's birth date.
Significantly, Belyayev chose to carry out the interview in an Internet cafe.
"Internet has become the number one influence zone. We don't even want to release newspapers anymore, although we have the possibility of [publishing] both newspapers and magazines. Newspapers are not very efficient, unlike the Internet. Look at how many youths are here," Belyayev said. "There is even a new term: 'web skinhead.' Koptsev was a web skinhead. I've lost count of the number of [extremist] sites."
Human Rights Concerns
Russian human rights groups certainly do not object to the closure of ultranationalist websites. But the parliament's drive to create a new law covering Internet content has many activists worried that this legislation could be used to clamp down on opposition websites.
Aleksandr Cherkasov, a senior member of the Russian human rights organization Memorial, shares these concerns: "Printed Nazi publications were not prosecuted for many years. Of course, one can regulate the whole Internet under the pretext that Koptsev read things on the Internet, but one has to understand that this regulation will not aim to achieve the stated goal, but to apply legislation where, according to current political standards, there is a need to look for extremism."
The Internet has already landed Memorial, a vocal critic of the Kremlin's policies, in trouble with the authorities.
On February 26, Moscow prosecutors ordered Memorial to withdraw from its website a text in which a top Russian mufti discusses a series of trials against people accused of ties with the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
This group, which seeks to establish a caliphate in Central Asia but formally rejects violence, was banned in Russia as a terrorist organization in 2003.
Memorial pulled the text from its website, but Cherkasov says the organization intends to challenge the prosecutors' order in court.