The Russian government has proposed state regulation of the content of Russian websites, a move that, if implemented, would limit the spread of information on the Internet. RFE/RL's Floriana Fossato reports from Moscow that Internet-based media are trying to convince the government that the Internet is too global a phenomenon to be regulated by one country's government.
Moscow, 7 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Internet community has fought off the first try by the government to regulate the Russian part of the World Wide Web. Internet experts say they have told the government that the only way to control the flow of information in Russia would be to cut off Russian computers from the rest of the world -- a move that would be almost impossible in today's market economy.
Internet specialists and site-holders met with top Kremlin officials, including Vladimir Putin, then prime minister and now also acting president. They say they managed to convince Putin that two draft decrees, prepared by the communications and media ministries to establish state regulation on Russian websites, need to be further worked out.
The draft decrees, prepared last December, would regulate the registration of Internet addresses for Russian websites and qualify them as "mass media," subject to licensing.
Putin said he would not sign the decrees in their original form and ordered the creation of an expert council of Internet professionals. The experts are to advise government officials and make sure state attempts to control information on the web don't go too far.
Even though the immediate danger seems gone, Russia's Internet community remains concerned. Headlines such as "Russia's Communications Ministry Is About To Take Control of The Internet" are not uncommon.
According to the Moscow-based Center for Media Law, the main problem with the law is that it does not make clear which of the nearly 18,000 Russian websites can be considered media publications that must be registered. (The text of the draft decree on registration of online media is available in Russian at www.deadline.ru/dosie/gov000112.asp)
They warn that, if the final decree also lacks clarity on the issue, the law could be broad enough to mount a serious challenge to freedom of speech in Russia.
Those who run Russian websites say they are encouraged. They say the government may be having second thoughts on whether to launch an all-out assault on the Internet.
Anton Nosik is one of Russia's best-known Internet specialists. Over the last few years, he has created and managed some of the most successful Russian websites dealing with political and economic news. He is now the chief editor of www.lenta.ru and www.vesti.ru -- two highly-rated sites that provide news and commentaries.
"Serious people do not expect a regulation of freedom of speech, or a limitation of freedom of expression on the Internet, because it is clear that this is unrealistic."
Were the draft decrees a case of some ministry officials going further than their superiors in their attempt to control a fast growing sector? Nosik says that could well be the case.
"The Internet [community] was awaiting an attempt of the authorities to regulate it since 1995 or 96. Internet professionals realized that officials could not allow the existence of a sector that is developing fast and producing incomes, but that is totally outside their regulation. Since the beginning, the question was when will authorities understand that they can make money regulating [the Internet]? And how [could they do that]? Either by extorting a share of profits in place of the registration, or by directly asking bribes for the registration of Internet projects."
Nosik was at a meeting of Internet professionals who met with Putin on December 28, says the Internet experts explained clearly at the meeting that control would be possible only following what Nosik called the "Chinese-Vietnamese method."
In that model, he explained, the Internet service available in the country is closed to the outside world, and selected foreign web servers are inaccessible. That model, he says, would be "a totalitarian system of the Internet." Nosik says Putin now has to decide.
"If the authorities decide to follow such a model, then it becomes possible to grant licenses and those who do not have a license cannot operate. But if you don't make this decision, if Russian users can keep accessing Yahoo and so forth, then all texts can be available through that and [we can] forget talks about licensing. There is America, where licensing is not requested and Russian sites can be available here from there. The situation is very simple. In order to forbid any one thing, the authorities first will have to forbid everything. The consequences of full [Internet] control in terms of image, social and political implications are clear enough [to everybody], including to Putin."
Nosik adds that singling out only online media would now be impossible. He says that Internet media, considered an elite product only four years ago, now represent a growing part of the Russian media picture. And if it were to take on the Internet, the government would have to take on all media in the country.
According to Nosik, Putin told Internet professionals that, if the government were faced with a choice between maintaining freedom of access or regulating, it would choose freedom. Those who publish on the Internet want very much to believe that.