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Russia: Demand For Internet Use Growing, But Restrictions Loom

Washington, 19 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) say demand for Internet access in Russia is growing at a rapid rate, but that an antiquated telephone system poses a formidable challenge to further progress.

In a recently released media analysis called "Russia: Evolving Internet Policy," analysts at FBIS, the foreign media monitoring arm of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, say that although the demand for Internet access is high and the Russian government is encouraging related development, technological, economic and political problems threaten to paralyze the effort.

The technological problems are centered primarily on the inadequate and technologically substandard telephone system in Russia. According to the report, there are not enough lines to meet demands for telephones, let alone for Internet usage.

Since the telephone lines in Russia are almost all analog (a line designed to support voice) and not digital (a line designed to quickly exchange data) -- people who do use Russia's lines to connect to the Internet face excruciating and expensive delays. As a result, those people who do have Internet access -- including institutions of higher learning -- severely restrict their online time, fearing astronomically high telephone bills.

The report says the Ministry of Communication is making concerted efforts to improve and upgrade the current telecommunications systems, but given its budget constraints and the fact that the country is so large, the report concludes that the improvements underway will have only a marginal effect.

The report determines that overall, despite the country's best efforts, the telecommunications infrastructure in Russia is simply unsuitable for modern computer communication needs and is not expected to reach Western standards for many years to come.

As it stands now, the report estimates that there are anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 people who use the Internet regularly in Russia. It is stunning considering that Russia -- with a population of 150 million people -- currently has only 20,000 computers linked to the Internet. By comparison, Finland -- with a population of only 5 million -- has 200,000 computers connected to the Internet.

According to the report, there are several projects underway to bring the Internet to Russia's higher education institutions. One of the largest is the Soros Foundation Project funded by Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros.

The foundation is providing $100 million to create a number of Internet information centers at various educational institutions, while the Russian government is providing the telecommunication links between the universities and to the Internet. The most recent Internet information center was opened in October, 1996 at the Far Eastern University in Vladivostok.

Yet, despite the government's efforts to bring Russia online, the concept of free and unmonitored exchange of ideas and information has many Russian politicians in an uproar about the possibilities of a national security threat from the Internet.

The report cites many examples of articles in the Russian press concerning the alleged threat -- some of the articles presenting balanced arguments about computer terrorism and crime, and others containing elements of xenophobia and hysteria.

The issue gained enough attention that the Duma has held several hearings on the topic. The first, which took place last July, was called "Threats and Challenges in the Sphere of Information Security." A second hearing on the issue was held in December. Parts of the hearing were closed to the public, but those segments that were open warranted various comments in the Russian press.

Among the comments cited in the report are those made by the first deputy general director of the Russian Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information, Viktor Markomenko.

Markomenko is quoted in the report as saying: "It is no secret that U.S. special services undertake efforts to acquire data on the information-telecommunications systems of other countries, including Russia."

According to the report, Markomenko went on to say that Russia's national security and sovereignty were threatened when government agencies used foreign equipment that is not licensed or certified in Russia to connect to the Internet.

The report also cites an alarming possibility -- that Russian security agencies are presently considering severely restricting the use of the Internet in a way comparable to that of Singapore where the exchange of certain types of information on the Internet is strictly forbidden and is closely monitored by the government.

In the case of Singapore, the restrictions are based mostly on the idea that the cessation of certain kinds of information will preserve the moral and civic decency of the population, whereas with Russia, the presumption is that the restriction of specific information will be in the interests of protecting national security.