Eesti Elu
Free Internet, free society. Supressed Internet, repressed society. Estonian Life
Rahvusvahelised uudised 20 Mar 2015 EL (Estonian Life)Eesti Elu
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Free Internet, free society.
Supressed Internet, repressed society.
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In Halifax last November Thomas Hendrik Ilves stated that Russian propaganda, in rejecting democratic values is in the process of creating a parallel reality. At the 60-nation conference on international security held for the fifth time, President Ilves stressed that it’s crucial to understand the nature of Russian propaganda.

Ilves is recognized as one of a few heads of state to be fully savvy of IT’s opportunities as well as it’s impact on societal liberties. After the cyber-attacks on Sony Pictures (being identified as the corporate entity responsible for North Korea-mocking film “The Interview”), Ilves said that the internet is the life-blood of modern democracy and requires protection. The attacks on Sony threatened everyone’s liberties world-wide if the North Korean-style intimidation was allowed to continue.

Freedom House annually conducts a survey giving a rating for all countries which establishes their relative level of Internet freedom. The latest Freedom House-based scores on Internet access, protection of user rights and digital laws preserving freedom of expression puts Estonia in first place. In fact Estonia has topped the polls three years in a row as the freest online country. The US holds the second most free standing with Germany, Australia and Hungary following.

The most restricted Internet environments are in Cuba, China, Syria, Uzbekistan with Iran placed in the very last spot. An increasing number of countries are enforcing digital legislation severely limiting people’s ability to communicate online. Freedom House says that in 19 countries examined people have been beaten, brutally assaulted, tortured and have disappeared for what they posted online. The latest Freedom House report stated that, “What we have seen over the last year and a half is that more and more governments are turning to tactics such as proactive manipulation of online content and extralegal surveillance to more covertly manipulate and influence Internet content.”

Experts say that Russia, for the past three years, has steadily built a ‘Kremlin firewall’ around the Internet. More than just trying to censor individual pages served from abroad, recent legislation could eventually prevent foreign Internet companies from reaching Russia unless they set up computer services inside the country putting them at the mercy of local governments in more than just censorship.

In actuality Russia up until three years ago enjoyed a relatively free Internet. But after protests took over Moscow’s streets in 2012 the Kremlin created Roskomnadzor, the agency that now has the means to take down anything it doesn’t like. In March of 2014 Roskomnadzor cut off access to websites run by Putin’s prominent opponents Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny.

Russia claims that the Roskomnadzor blacklist’s main role is to block what is considered to be dangerous content like suicide instructions, drug cookbooks, information about terrorist groups. Observers insist that it is in fact the start of blocking dissent. Practically all of the major independent news sites have been eliminated indicating there is no accountability for who is put on the blacklist.

In 2014 new legislation was passed that forces foreign companies such as Google, Twitter and others to use servers located within Russia when storing data from local users. Not only does this mean stricter censorship for the companies, but it also opens up the companies to surveillance by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). This is an overwhelming challenge for companies abroad that have millions of Russian users who now store data on servers outside of Russia. Independent journalism and the political opposition would not have any reach to a free Russian readership.

While the authoritarian initiatives do not appear to be very sophisticated, observers say that the limitations are in a sense very efficient because they engender the rise of self-censorship and caution amongst users, platforms and other aspects of the Internet. Limiting Internet access also helps to bolster the effectiveness of propaganda campaigns and the falsification of information.

The above has been a brief description of the systematic and controlled erosion of Internet freedom. Another aspect of the manipulation of the Internet is the control of the spontaneity and candor of the commentary on a free Internet.

The Finnish media have revealed that the Russian Agentstvo Internet Issledovanti (Internet Research Agency), was established in 2013, to influence opinions in the social media. It involves the massive creation of pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine and anti-Western postings, articles, comments – including comments on Western web sites. It’s known that widely distributed, identical comments are easily spotted, therefore re-write personnel putting the same message into a different wording are an important part of the propaganda production.

It’s estimated that some 270 writers plus management level personnel are assigned to this activity. Compensation for this work is significantly above Russian standards (400-600 euros/month) and therefore attracts experienced journalists. The agency’s monthly salary budget alone is some 100,000 euros..

Former employees of the agency say that most of the writers do not themselves believe in the message that they create. They’re motivated by the remuneration, not ideology.

Witnessing Putin’s steady march towards authoritarianism it was inevitable that Russia would turn its attention on the Internet as soon as it understood its potential power. It’s said that the Kremlin’s goal is eventually to have no oppositional thinkers available to Russian readers, further erosion of Internet freedom on the way to this goal seems likely.
Laas Leivat
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