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Russia Launches Initiative To Police Internet

MOSCOW -- One day there will be thousands of volunteers out there patrolling the Russian Internet. That at least is the dream of a new organization launched this week, the League of Internet Safety.

The league is a heavyweight organization formed by the three major mobile providers: Mobile TeleSystems, VimpelCom, and Megafon, and the state telecom company Rostelecom. It also features the head of, Dmitry Grishin, on its board of trustees, which is headed by Communications and Press Minister Igor Shchyogolev.

At a news conference on February 7, International Internet Safety Day, Shchyogolev called for volunteers to help the league patrol the Internet.

The league's primary purpose in the next year will be to fight against child pornography, organizers say. But they also talked about eventually expanding that mission to policing other "negative" content.

They did not, however, explain exactly just what that meant -- causing suspicion among many of the country's increasingly active bloggers.

Pavel Astakhov, the children's ombudsman who is also a trustee of the league, called on Internet users themselves to refrain from putting anything "negative, extremist, disgusting, or dangerous" online.

Shchyogolev said thousands of volunteers, or "simple people," would monitor the Internet and tell the league when they see "dangerous content."

The Russian Internet, known as RUnet, is the most independent media in Russia. Television is almost entirely controlled by the state and newspapers have limited circulations.

In recent years, bloggers have become increasingly powerful with the ability to make news, initiate campaigns, or gather support for protests against the government.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian security services, says it's the job of law enforcement bodies -- not volunteers -- to look for criminal activity on the web.

"What I don't understand in this case is how people, who are not in any way known as specialists in areas such as linguistics, pornography or in the battle with extremism, will take on these functions and become these cyber brigades," Soldatov said.

Bloggers React Skeptically

However, Yevgeny Bespalov, the head of Friendly Internet, an organization that tries to improve safety for children on the web and will work with the new league, has praised the idea.

"There is a reason for optimism as the initiative, the League of Internet Safety is backed by the state institutions. We hope that their work will be a serious contribution," Bespalov says.

There are between 8 and 10 million web users under the age of 14 in Russia, according to the web-analysis company RUmetrika, with 40 percent having had access to adult material on the web.
There are up to 10 million web users in Russia under the age of 14

Friendly Internet fights also against child pornography, Bespalov says, and Russia is second behind the United States for the amount of child pornography on its Internet. In 2010, the organization received 22,000 reports of child pornography on its hotline.

The league will also provide grants to develop filters to protect children from seeing adult material on the web, too.

Bloggers, for their part, reacted skeptically to the new organization.

Anton Nossik, one of the country's most famous bloggers and Internet businessmen, pointed out that China, which has far more control of the web than Russia, has its own cybermilitia to screen websites to report to the authorities.

Another blogger Maksim Kononenko slammed the idea, claiming that organizations like Friendly Internet had limited success. He suggested that the League of Internet Safety would end up being sold as a business in the future.

Others suggested that the league was just another way for the state to abuse the Internet for its own purposes. In recent years, the security services and Kremlin-backed youth organizations have been active on the Internet, harassing those they view as ideological opponents.

"In Russia in the last few years there have appeared what we can call patriotic hackers. Apart from that there are also activists who attack sites that have comments they think are not patriotic or anti-Russian and they do this in ways which are not legal," Soldatov says.

Bespalov, however, denies that the league was any attempt to control the Internet. "We need to talk not about censorship but self-regulating," he says. "If we speak about some kind of state censor then I think there is no desire for the prime minister or the government to get involved in that."