Accessibility links

Breaking News

In Russian Region, A Soviet-Style 'People's Patrol' For The Cyber Age

Rights watchdogs see the move as part of Russia's escalating crackdown on Internet speech that has ensnared scores of social-media users and bloggers.
Rights watchdogs see the move as part of Russia's escalating crackdown on Internet speech that has ensnared scores of social-media users and bloggers.

State-sanctioned "people's patrols" were a fixture of Soviet life during most of the postwar period, walking the streets with their signature red armbands to guard against public drunkenness and other minor mayhem.

Now a Russian governor is bringing this tradition into the Internet age with a decree -- the first of its kind in the country -- that would set up an official network of vigilante cyber-snitches to ferret out illegal online content.

The order signed by Yevgeny Savchenko, governor of the southern Belgorod region, and enacted last week comes amid what rights watchdogs call Russia's escalating crackdown on Internet speech that has ensnared scores of social-media users and bloggers.

Free-speech advocates say many of these cases -- including a blogger's recent hate-speech conviction in part for a video showing him playing Pokemon Go in a church -- involve constitutionally protected expression and are aimed at stamping out dissent.

The May 22 decree signed by Savchenko, a member of President Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, codifies for the first time in Russia the concept of "cyber-druzhina," co-opting a term for the civilian patrols that buttressed Soviet police and remain active in Russia today -- albeit in smaller numbers.

It places "volunteer" online informants under the control of the regional government and spells out how they should alert authorities about "illegal" online materials, including those deemed by the authorities to be "extremist," drug and gambling "propaganda," child pornography, and content encouraging suicide.

Participants must be at least 18 years old, and they would be tasked with scouring the Internet for such content. They would then report any unlawful findings to Russia's mass-media regulator, Roskomnadzor, as well as social-network administrators and a center backed by the regional government that would decide whether to forward information to law enforcement authorities.

They would also report alleged illegal content to a lobby group known as the Safe Internet League, which is backed by Russian tycoon Konstantin Malofeyev, whom the United States accuses of bankrolling Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Malofeyev has called for greater Internet censorship in Russia, including banning Facebook. His organization is the most prominent of the self-proclaimed cyber-druzhina groups that have sprouted up across Russia in recent years but do not formally operate under dedicated legal regulation.

Founded in 2011, it claims to have 20,000 volunteers in 32 Russian regions and to have helped the authorities both inside and outside Russia solve "hundreds" of cases involving child pornography and "other crimes against society and the state."

'Professional Informers'

Numerous criminal cases against Russian social-media users have grabbed national headlines in recent years, targeting not only racist and xenophobic content, but also political and religious speech often critical of the Kremlin and its loyalists.

Some cases have veered toward the Kafkaesque, such as one man's recent conviction on a misdemeanor "extremism" charge for posting an article about the dismissal of an earlier charge against him for posting "extremist" content.

Sarkis Darbinyan, head of the Center for the Defense of Digital Rights, a Moscow-based advocacy group, says he believes the Belgorod initiative is aimed at setting up a network of "professional informers" who will receive "crumbs" from regional coffers in exchange for helping authorities squelch dissenting voices.

"I think that even though these so-called volunteers will supposedly work for free, there will be some budget financing," Darbinyan tells RFE/RL.

Aleksandr Verkhovksy, head of the Moscow-based Sova Center rights group, says Russian authorities are in little need of outside assistance to find Internet users to prosecute.

"They don't need a network of informers like these 'druzhinniki,' because they can easily find all of the content that isn't password-protected or in closed groups all by themselves," Verkhovsky tells RFE/RL, using the Russian word to describe members of civilian patrols.

"And they do find it -- in such quantities that the criminal justice system can't even process it all," adds Verkhovsky, a vocal critic of what he calls the authorities' overzealous pursuit of online extremism cases.

The Belgorod governor's office did not respond to a request for comment, and it was not immediately clear when the region would start coordinating the cyberpatrol brigades.

The Washington-based rights group Freedom House, which receives funding from the U.S. government, says Internet freedoms continued to slide in Russia last year, and other international watchdogs have criticized the country's treatment of online speech as well.

Russian officials have dismissed such criticism. Vyacheslav Volodin, an influential Putin ally and current speaker of the lower house of parliament, said last year that the Internet in Russia was "more free than in the United States."

Both Darbinyan and Verkhovsky say the Belgorod initiative could serve as a template for government-backed cyber-druzhina groups in other regions or on a federal level.

"It's an attractive way to provide an accounting of ideological work," Verkhovsky adds.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says the plan could be connected to Savchenko's bid for reelection as governor in September, or to next year's presidential election that is widely expected to hand Putin another six-year term.

Regional heads will likely face pressure to ensure robust voter turnout in the March 2018 presidential election.

"It's a chance for him to demonstrate his usefulness in the region he's been entrusted with," Petrov says of Savchenko.

  • 16x9 Image

    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.