Prague, 24 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Government monitoring of e-mail messages sent and received by individual citizens and groups could have a far more chilling effect on communications within and among countries than any previous official effort to keep track of the views and behavior of those living under their control.
On the one hand, the existence of such a capacity could easily make governments ever more willing to use it, a possibility few of their citizens are likely to feel free to ignore. And on the other, those who now use the Internet may either seek to use enhanced encryption devices to thwart official surveillance or turn to other media altogether.
All these possibilities were highlighted earlier this month when Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, signed into law amendments to that country's 1995 Law on Operational Investigations. Under the terms of the amendment, Moscow's security and law enforcement agencies will gain access to all Internet service providers in the Russian Federation.
Such an arrangement, already well-established in Kazakhstan and several other post-Soviet states, gives the Russian authorities at least in principle the ability to monitor in real-time all e-mail and other electronic traffic passing through these providers.
The new Russian legislation maintains the requirement that these agencies -- including the Federal Security Service -- must still obtain a court order before opening e-mails or accessing other electronic communications and files. But given the past practices of these institutions, that does not appear to be a very strong barrier to official misconduct.
Yelena Bonner, the widow of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and a leading human rights activist in her own right, told The Moscow Times last week that this action "means Russia has officially become a police state," adding that "this war-time police state came about unnoticed when Putin rose to power on December 31."
Other observers were equally exercised. Boris Putintsev, the head of Russia's Citizens' Watch, said that the new rules signed into law by Putin means "the end of e-mail privacy." "It was bad enough that the Federal Security Service had unlimited control over confidential correspondence," he said. Now, he concluded, that power "is multiplied eight times."
The experience of Kazakhstan and elsewhere suggests that such conclusions may be overstated. Governments generally lack the resources to monitor the increasingly large volume of electronic traffic their citizens send and receive. But there are three reasons why the concerns of Bonner and Putintsev about probably Russian government actions merit serious attention.
First, even before this new law was adopted, Moscow had in place a system for operational-investigative activities -- its acronym is SORM in Russian -- which allowed the Federal Security Service direct access into the accounts of Russia's Internet providers, many of whom suspect that the FSB has used SORM without a court order and without telling anyone.
Second, given Russia's troubled legal culture, many people both there and in the West may actually welcome the use of such a tool by the tax police, the customs authorities, and the Interior Ministry. Many more may be reluctant to criticize arrangements that will allow the foreign intelligence service and border guards such access, especially since a variety of countries have similar arrangements.
And third, given Putin's background in the security services, many people are likely to fear that he will use the capacity to monitor e-mail traffic to solidify his power. Indeed, even Western officials long known to be sympathetic to Russia have recently noted that Putin's accession makes it difficult if not impossible to know where Russia is going.
More than in most countries, the Internet has played a key role in helping to jumpstart civil society in the Russian Federation. The possibility that this important mechanism will now be sidetracked thus seems certain to be an ever more serious issue for an ever larger group of people, even if the Putin government does not make full use of its new capabilities.