Did Russian President Dmitry Medvedev blush when he signed off on the G-8 declaration of the “Renewed Commitment for Freedom and Democracy” at last week’s G-8 Summit in Deauville, France? Probably not, but he should have.
Russia today is not exactly an example of political freedom or democracy as we in the West understand it. Nor is Russia in any way committed to free expression on the Internet, the subject of a lengthy portion of the G-8 declaration. While governments of all stripes today advocate greater international cooperation in cyberspace, the Internet is becoming an increasingly dangerous place where political activism and dissent can reap severe reprisals from autocratic and repressive regimes. “You can smile and smile and be a villain,” as Hamlet famously said.
By driving information and communication toward the Internet (where overhead is miniscule compared to other media) and away from radio and television, policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere are making their information-dissemination policies vulnerable. It was Lenin who predicted that capitalists would sell the Soviet Union the rope to hang themselves. That was 100 years ago. Today, we are not talking about rope but Internet censorship and tracking software in which brisk international trade has developed.
A growing gap exists today between reality and government policy that international treaties will not likely help to bridge.
For instance, Medvedev and the other seven leaders signed onto this section of the document at Deauville:
The Internet has become the public arena for our time, a lever of economic development and an instrument for political liberty and emancipation. Freedom of opinion, expression, information, assembly and association must be safeguarded on the Internet as elsewhere. Arbitrary or indiscriminate censorship or restrictions on access to the Internet are inconsistent with States’ international obligations and are clearly unacceptable. Furthermore, they impede economic and social growth.… We commit to encourage the use of the Internet as a tool to advance human rights and democratic participation throughout the world.
Now there was a lot more in the document, which ran considerably longer than the U.S. Constitution. In many ways it echoed the “International Strategy for Cyberspace,” promulgated in May by the U.S. government, which calls for cooperation through new international bodies to regulate the Internet.
If we look at the realities on the ground—in Russia and in many other countries today—the Internet is a double-edged sword. Though connectivity worldwide has increased exponentially, so has the ability of governments to track users and transactions, threaten and imprison cyber dissidents, and generally spy on the activities of their citizens.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia is among the world’s worst offenders of online oppression, being singled out particularly for high rates of anti-press attacks. One of the worst was the brutal attack in November 2010 on prominent business reporter and blogger Oleg Kashin, who was beaten so badly that he went into a coma for a period. No arrests have been made.
As stated by Freedom House in its “Freedom on the Net, 2011,”worldwide reports of website blocking and filtering, content manipulation, attacks on and imprisonment of bloggers, and cyberattacks have all increased sharply in recent years. Freedom House ranks Russia as only “partly free” as far as Internet freedom is concerned, the main problems being violation of users’ rights, the prevalence of cybercrime, and violence perpetrated against bloggers and Internet journalists. From July through September 2010, for instance, Russia accounted for 9 percent of all Internet attacks. Punishment of hackers is rare, leading to a culture of impunity.
Notwithstanding these facts, the U.S. has been willing to turn a blind eye as it developed its communications strategy. In 2007, the U.S. ended transmissions from Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Liberty to Russia to focus entirely on the Internet platform. (A similar decisions has been made about China broadcasting in the fiscal year 2012 budget.)
While the argument can and is often made that the growth of Internet users in countries like China and Russia gives Web-based platforms great reach—Russia has 33 percent Internet penetration, according to Freedom House—it is also true that servers can be controlled by the government, content is vulnerable to hackers, and users can be tracked by censors if they have the right software.
According an independent expert evaluation of the VOA Russian news Web site content, ordered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the VOA Web site is confused about its mission and fails to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda. Furthermore, it deliberately downplays human rights news in order to avoid impressions of an “anti-Russian” bias. One could indeed argue that the “reset” between the Obama and Medvedev governments has had the consequence of toning down content in the interest of blandness and good relations.
As policymakers grapple with the prevalence, the power and the convenience of the new medium at their disposal, they must also be keenly aware of its shortcomings and its dangers. Russia offers a cautionary example of the challenges ahead.