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Media Matters: July 16, 2004

16 July 2004, Volume 4, Number 13
By Julie A. Corwin

Although only about 15 million Russians -- roughly 10 percent of the population -- regularly access the Internet, the reach of news or information posted on the Internet could extend to as much as one-third of the population, according to Ivan Zasurskii, deputy general director of Rambler. In an interview with "Novaya gazeta," No. 45, he noted that all urban populations have access to information from the Internet via "horizontal channels" of communication. For example, radio talk-show hosts and DJs regularly pick up "hot" themes from the Internet and immediately broadcast them. If Zasurskii is correct, will the Internet's expanding reach attract increased attention from authorities?

After all, government restrictions on the media under President Vladimir Putin appear to be directly proportional to a particular medium's influence. Television, the most popular media sector, is subject to the most controls, while newspapers face considerably less scrutiny. Which path will the Internet, currently one of Russia's most vibrant information realms, take in the future?

At present, at least two efforts are under way to draft legislation to regulate the Internet in Russia, and these efforts could bear fruit as early as next year. Last month, State Duma Deputy Vladimir Tarachev (Unified Russia) told "Russkii fokus," No. 21, that he has been working on a bill with an initiative group for the past three years, adding that it is 95 percent ready. After a group based in the Federation Council submits its version to the Duma, the members of Tarachev's group will present their draft, which will serve as the Duma's alternative version.

Tarachev, who is a member of the Duma Banking Committee, said this is unlikely to happen before the end of this year. About two weeks earlier, Dmitrii Mezentsev, chairman of the Federation Council's Information Policy Committee, told a press conference in Moscow that he is part of a working group that is also preparing legislation to regulate the Internet, Interfax reported on 3 June. Mezentsev said his group is still not sure whether a separate law on the Internet is needed or whether the new version of the law on mass media currently being drafted should be augmented. He also said the shape of the new bill will not be determined before next year.

Details of Tarachev's and Mezentsev's plans followed months of denials that a project to draft a new law on the Internet was in the works. Duma Information Policy Committee Chairman Valerii Komissarov (Unified Russia) and committee Deputy Chairman Boris Reznik (Unified Russia) stated categorically in March that their committee is not working on legislation to regulate the Internet (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 15 April 2004). However, Reznik noted that attempts to draft such legislation have been repeatedly undertaken, and the last of these was an initiative by a deputy from the last Duma, Aleksandr Shubin (Union of Rightist Forces). In 2000, Reznik, Komissarov, and Konstantin Vetrov, a Liberal Democratic Party of Russia deputy who was then chairman of the Information Policy Committee, were part of a working group to develop a law on the Internet. Their focus was drafting a law that would protect intellectual-property rights and regulate other economic-related issues.

One difference between that attempt and the latest initiatives will likely be a new emphasis on regulating Internet content. Mezentsev denied that he and his colleagues are even discussing the introduction of any censorship on the web. However, he also said he would consider banning information that could pose a threat to people's lives or security. In addition, Lyudmila Narusova, the Federation Council representative for the Tuva Republic's legislature and a member of Mezentsev's working group, gave an interview with "Novye izvestiya" on 3 June in which she said she favors increasing state control over the Internet because it has become "a cesspool." "On the Internet, one can find the most incredible rumors, including some that denigrate people's reputations," Narusova said. "And while one can sue a newspaper, this is virtually impossible with the Internet."

Some analysts linked the new legislative efforts with a broader trend of expanding state influence over civil society. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 3 June, media-law expert Fedor Kravchenko commented that the purpose of the new bills most likely is to increase state control over the Internet. "Just as now not one television company can escape the Kremlin's grip, in the same way, most likely, they would like some instrument of control over information on the Internet," Kravchenko said. "Today, this sphere is too uncontrolled."

Other analysts see commercial interests driving the process. Anton Nosik, editor of, told a press conference in Moscow in May that Tarachev's Internet bill was developed in extreme secrecy and that the people behind it are not interested in censorship per se, but in a "redistribution of property in the virtual market, which they have finally noticed and want to get their hands on." Participating in a panel at RFE/RL on 10 June, Glasnost Defense Foundation head Aleksei Simonov said his organization's priority is to preserve the law on mass media in its current form. He predicted that finishing a draft law on the Internet could take many years, considering that the law on mass media has required almost a decade so far.

In an interview with "Novaya gazeta," No. 45, Zasurskii expressed doubt about what the government could really do to control the Internet even if it wants to. "You have to be realistic," he said. "How many websites are there on the Internet? Imagine that a chief commissar for regulation of the Internet in Russia has been appointed. He should present a plan for finally regulating Internet news. He will need a budget of $5 billion. He will need around 200-300 specialists. Who will do this? Who needs this? The Matrix will never try to control everything. Because when you try to control everything, you weaken yourself. It is necessary to control [only] the most important." He also noted that is easy to make an electronic publication out of the reach of authorities: "You simply relocate it to the United States and put it out in Russian. Such is the case with Try and shut down, please."

According to Zasurskii, the conflict is really a centuries-old one in Russia between conservative forces and a modernizing elite that is using a new technology that is impossible to wipe out.

By Mark Baker

The war on terrorism is increasingly calling on the skills of computer technicians, hackers, and even Internet "vigilantes" to fight the battle. As terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda turn to the Internet to broadcast their messages, recruit members, and raise money, law-enforcement officers are honing their own technical skills to trace offending websites and computer users.

James Kirkhope is the research director for the Washington-based Terrorism Research Center, which examines links between terrorism and technology. He says that once a suspected terrorist website appears, law-enforcement officers around the world begin the hunt to find it and, if warranted, close it down.

"One of the main steps law-enforcement agencies do is to identify [the] web server of a particular website, and that's usually the source that law enforcement will go to to pull the plug on terrorist websites," Kirkhope told RFE/RL.

But the task is not easy. While each server and personal computer on the Internet has a unique address, locating an offending website is not as simple as -- for example -- tracing a telephone call.

One of the main obstacles is the nature of the Internet itself -- relatively open and unregulated, yet highly interconnected. Kirkhope said one of the tricks terrorist groups use is to link a website from server to server -- to "bounce" it, as the practice is known. This, in effect, conceals the identity of the original server and the site's author.

"[The terrorists] will have the site bouncing off through two or three other sites," Kirkhope said. "You'll go to an Al-Qaeda-sympathizer site, but it will be bounced to two or three other sites. The ability to locate who's putting it up is going to be difficult. [Essentially,] anyone can put up [a website]."

Even when a host computer or user is found, the problems are just starting. Relatively few countries have effective laws on the books that recognize as crimes the words and images typically found on militants' websites.

"The technology is expanding exponentially year to year, and the legal framework has yet to catch up in many [countries]," Kirkhope said. "Often times, it's not illegal to post anything on the [Internet], depending on what the countries are. Sometimes, they will have decency rules and laws, but they will not have any of the [anti]-incitement to riot or [anti]-incitement [to violence] rules against this kind of thing on the Internet."

Even in the United States, where the recently enacted USA PATRIOT Act gives law enforcement expanded powers to combat terrorism, convicting the authors of suspected terrorist sites has proven difficult.

The Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, makes it illegal to advise or assist terrorists -- such as through an Internet website. Yet in a closely watched case in Idaho, a Saudi Arabian student attending school there was recently acquitted of charges that a website he was running was raising funds for terrorist groups.

The student, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, argued he was merely hosting the information -- that he was not the author -- and that the site was protected by free-speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The main charges were dismissed for lack of evidence identifying him specifically as a terrorist.

To fill the technical and legal void, a new breed of amateur terrorist hunter is emerging. These Internet "vigilantes" typically operate anonymously in small numbers -- often from their own homes. They use a variety of methods to identify possible terrorists, including relatively simple things like engaging suspected militants in online chat rooms. They then pass on any information they get to law-enforcement officials.

One of these groups, called 7 Seas Global Intelligence, recently claimed success in identifying a U.S. soldier in the state of Washington who was suspected of passing information to Al-Qaeda. The national guardsman is now under investigation.

But these groups frequently skirt the line between legality and illegality. Inviting a suspected terrorist to incriminate himself in a chat room could be viewed as entrapment. Then there's the ever-present danger that innocent people will be unjustly accused.

Kirkhope said such vigilante groups -- if they go too far -- risk arrest themselves. He said a so-called patriotic hacker was recently convicted in the United States for violating privacy laws.

"The legal community and law-enforcement community do not want to have people running around the Internet doing vigilante work just in the name of patriotism or things like that," Kirkhope said. "Even as [recently] as six weeks ago, there was a case of an antiterrorist patriot hacker who was convicted in the United States for violating privacy codes and those types of things."

Mark Baker is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.

By Breffni O'Rourke

Delegates from more than 50 countries attended a conference in Paris last month that explored how to deal with the increasing flow of racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic material on the Internet. The two-day conference sought ways to drive such socially destructive materials off the Internet, while at the same time preserving freedom of speech.

Sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the conference was held at the instigation of France's ambassador to the OSCE, Yves Dutrioux, who told RFE/RL that the flood of undesirable material on the Internet is worrying governments.

"There is a growing frustration in participating states and civil society generally, regarding the growing number of websites on the Internet disseminating hate material, anti-Semitic or racist material," Dutrioux said.

The ambassador said there is "no question" of restricting the free flow of information. He said moves to regulate Internet content should not be an "alibi" to curb freedom of expression.

"Beyond the principle of freedom of expression, it is quite possible for us -- that is, participating states, NGOs, representatives of the [computer] industry and the governments -- to exchange good practices in order to better support the victims of these racist websites," he said.

He said better education is needed -- among young people, teachers, police officers, lawyers, and magistrates -- to help them recognize and combat criminality in cyberspace. And the Internet industry itself should voluntary act to close down websites that are clearly racist and which are "beyond limits."

This is at the heart of the issue. "Beyond limits" can be a subjective judgment. What is acceptable to some citizens is intolerable to others. To solve this problem, the ambassador resorts to the concept of the "right-thinking average man."

"The line is difficult [to find], but it it's like the question of what is, or is not, pornographic," Dutrioux said. "When you see genuine pornography, then you [instinctively] recognize it as such, and it is the same for racism and anti-Semitism."

Differences of opinion between the European delegates to the conference and the American delegates were anticipated, given the traditionally harder American line in favor of individual free speech. The chief of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant, said, however, that there is much more common ground than there were differences. He said the U.S. position on free speech does not render it powerless to act. On the contrary, he said it is ready to act where there is criminality.

"Not all expressions [of free speech] are, therefore, protected as viewpoints," Bryant said. "You are not expressing a view when you make a criminal threat, which is specific and credible by any medium, Internet or otherwise. You are not expressing a view when you agitate and entice others to commit crimes."

Bryant praised the Internet as an instrument of good. "We think the Internet has enormous potential to equip people with knowledge, to enhance communications globally, to attack the ignorance and misunderstanding that are the fertile soil for intolerance," he said.

The Paris conference drew up a series of preliminary recommendations, which will be finalized at a conference in Sofia at the end of the year.

Breffni O'Rourke is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

On the occasion of the 2004 BookExpo America in Chicago last month, a group of U.S. and Russian publishers and free-speech advocates took part in a telephone conference to protest recent book confiscations in Russia that they fear are tacitly encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. During his term in office, Putin has been repeatedly criticized for extending state control over television and print media, and he has often criticized nongovernmental activists.

Russian publishers and activists say police have swooped down on alternative bookstores and suppliers like Stolitsa in Moscow and other Russian cities recently, confiscating books on drugs, the war in Chechnya, and other controversial themes.

In the last six months, activists say, eight books by both Russian and U.S. authors have been confiscated by the Russian Federal Antinarcotics Service on the grounds that they promote illegal drug use. The works were printed by a small but prominent alternative press called UltraKultura, headed by Ilya Kormiltsev, a colorful figure on the Moscow cultural scene who is remembered for his lyrics in the 1980s rock group Nautilus Pompilius.

In recent years, Kormiltsev has shocked Russian audiences with such works as Dmitrii Nesterov's "Skins" on the neo-Nazi youth movement and the works of the picaresque Eduard Limonov, head of the National Bolshevik Party of Russia and author of 20 books. Kormiltsev backed Limonov in his unsuccessful battle to be cleared of weapons and conspiracy charges. Limonov was released on parole last year.

Asked if he sympathizes with such extremist figures, Kormiltsev told "Novaya gazeta" in January: "We respect the right of everyone to make their own conclusions. We only provide the information. This is not pluralism in the sense of 'we love communists, we love anarchists, we love fascists.' In any expression there is some grain of truth. If we see that part of truth in a book, we publish it," he said.

The current list of books seized by Russian narcotics agents include Russian translations of: "Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine" by Harvard professors Lester Grinspoon and James Balaker; "Extreme Islam" by Adam Parfrey; "Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved: A Chemical Love Story" by Alexander and Ann Shulgin; "Inside Terrorism" by Bruce Hoffman, RAND's vice president for external affairs; "Brides Of Allah" by Julia Uzek; and "Storming Heaven: LSD And The American Dream" by Jay Stevens. All of the books are freely available in the United States.

Russian publishers and lawyers who have taken up the free-publishing cause have been unable to reverse the police actions and expect more trouble with authorities. While federal officials do not appear directly involved, Russian publishers say neither the Culture and Mass Media Ministry, the presidential human rights ombudsman, nor organizations like the PEN Club, have taken any action about the UltraKultura confiscations. The publishers are concerned about the implications for freedom of speech and also fear that the crackdown on drug-related books is part of a wider dragnet to deprive the reading public of any kind of alternative commentary.

"We found a space for commercially viable and topical books in Russia that from the very beginning experienced negativity and even sanctions from state agencies," Kormiltsev said during the June telephone conference. While authorities have not intervened at the prepublication or printing stage, distributors and stores that have carried his books have are now subjected to warrant-less searches and seizure of books on narcotics, terrorism, and the war in Chechnya, he said.

"I wonder what the real reason is, and what were the consequences," Kormiltsev said about the spate of searches. "Was drugs the reason? Or the political information in the other books? The drugs [issue] gave [the authorities] the excuse to start sanctions against the drug books and start activities against our house on this whole range of books." Vitalii Dyuma is head of the Russian Harm Reduction Network, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations campaigning for clean-needle distribution and drug education to prevent the further spread of HIV/AIDS. He has opposed the actions taken against UltraKultura and other alternative publishing houses, noting that police have used existing laws not directly related to the press law to confiscate the books. The Russian Criminal Code bars the dissemination of any information concerning the development, production, and use of drugs. Any type of open discussion of drug use or the advocacy of distribution of injection equipment even in health-related programs can easily fall under the law, Dyuma said. Russian advocates for a less punitive and more civil-rights-centered drug policy have found significant obstacles to their work and complain that they cannot even discuss publicly such treatment options as methadone maintenance, which is prohibited in Russia. While officials have indicated the anti-drug-propaganda law might be amended, so far the conservative Russian parliament has not made any effort to do so and seems determined to wield it to combat Russia's rampant drug-abuse problem.

While supporting their Russian colleagues, U.S. participants in the discussion strained to find moral equivalency in U.S. cases. They cited a speech by the dean of the University of North Carolina questioning curriculum requirements to read the Koran and threats by Congress to cut federal money to local transit authorities if they accept paid advertisements from advocacy groups critical of existing U.S. law and policy on marijuana use.

However, these cases did not involve prior government censorship per se, but the state's refusal to pay for expression it was not willing to subsidize for policy reasons, and a university's judgment about which values to promote, not a violation of speech protected under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. Corporations and universities often adopt their own internal speech policies. First Amendment lawyers are hard put to overturn them in court mainly because the books in question are readily available to anyone who wishes to see them.

A more ready equivalent in U.S. history to the current Russian censorship cases is the 1962 ban on William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," a popular novel that explicitly addressed drug addiction and homosexuality. In what was one of the last major U.S. book-censorship cases, publishers successfully appealed the ban in a landmark Supreme Court case.

Among the Americans taking part in the telephone conference to call for an end to Russian book censorship was Peter Osnos, head of Public Affairs, a current-affairs publishing house in New York, and publisher of philanthropist George Soros, who has supported harm-reduction and free-speech programs through his charities in Russia. As a correspondent in Moscow for "The Washington Post" in the 1970s, Osnos saw many of the dissident authors he interviewed hauled off to jail for their writings, their samizdat works not reaching a Russian audience until more liberal conditions emerged decades later. While acknowledging that today's Russia is far freer than the Soviet Union was, Osnos said that unless the authorities are willing to tolerate the kind of controversial works released by figures like Kormiltsev, "they don't have a democratic society, and they always run the risk of falling into the same patterns and making the same mistakes as the Soviets."

"One thing that the Putin administration seems to underestimate is how essential it is for the strength of a democracy for there to be a lively, contentious -- argumentative at times -- revealing, free press that includes obvious books on important issues such as the ones that have apparently been banned," Osnos said. "What made the Soviet Union weak, was the extent to which there was no basis for self-criticism of the society, no legitimate channel for making change for the better."