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Moscow Times, June 11, 2004

Cracking Down on the Web

By Boris Kagarlitsky

The Internet has long been a headache for those that wish to uphold public decency. Controlling the enormous flow of information on the net, chopping, spiking or "correcting" the innumerable texts and images lodged on the web is surely the dream of any censor.

The only problem is that no one has yet managed to put this fantasy into practice. In essence, the Internet does not differ significantly from the spoken word. Newspapers and TV channels can be controlled, books can be burned, but as the Soviet authorities learned, it is impossible to control what people say in the privacy of their own kitchens. The Worldwide Web is just such an uncontrolled "space," in which everyone is free to act as they wish, so long as they have access to a computer and modem.

However, members of the Federation Council are determined to bring an end to this Internet anarchy. They are working on a law that would regulate the publishing of material on the web. Tuva's senator, Lyudmila Narusova, a member of the Federation Council's commission on information policy, believes that the situation calls for immediate intervention by the appropriate authorities: "The Internet has become a cesspit where you can dump anything, without making one's case or in any way verifying its authenticity," she said. "It is spreading like the plague -- that's why it is high time to do something. On the Internet, one can find the most incredible rumors, including those that denigrate people's reputations. And while one can sue a newspaper, with the Internet this is virtually impossible."

Absolutely true -- the Internet is indeed full of rubbish and has its fair share of outright filth. The real issue, though, is who should be responsible for sorting the wheat from the chaff and using what criteria. On this count, it seems our senators have no doubts: Specially empowered officials will do the job and whatever they do not like will be labeled rubbish and filth.

Narusova and her colleagues are not exactly original in their desire to bring order to the Internet. Where the real originality lies is in the proposed methods for achieving this end. Until now, all such attempts have come up against the problem of the web's extraterritoriality. The moment you close down a site in Russia, it pops up in Belarus. What is illegal in Germany, can be put on the web in Denmark. Where a site is registered is of no importance to Internet users.

Our senators studied the unsuccessful experience of their Western colleagues. According to Narusova, they are not so interested in controlling websites, as in being able to bring to book "the authors on sites that publish all manner of cock-and-bull stories."

This approach to Internet censorship promises to be highly effective. The text can be placed on the net anywhere, but it is much harder for the person responsible for the text to hide. He or she has a home, work, friends -- it's not that easy to up sticks and move. Of course, materials will be published anonymously. But even forcing authors under ground would be a serious victory for the authorities.

If the Russian experiment proves successful, we can expect it to be exported to other countries. Right-wing fundamentalists in the United States have long dreamed of doing something similar, but they simply lacked imagination. The Chinese communists may very well be interested. Indeed, one could well imagine the emergence of a global cartel, coordinating censorship of the web. There would be nowhere to run.

No doubt, Narusova would be very upset to learn that she is suspected of involvement in trying to impose worldwide totalitarianism. She is linked not to the Communists or nationalists, but specifically to the democratic and liberal part of Russia's political establishment. And her roots are in St. Petersburg, famous for its liberal traditions.

In order that there should be no doubt about the democratic approach to the problem, Internet site owners and representatives of public organizations will be called upon to assist in drafting the law. Representatives of some of the largest IT companies have already been tapped. Obviously to refuse would be a show of disloyalty.

"We cannot allow one of the best inventions of the 20th century to be turned into a reeking cesspit. I hope you won't argue with that," Narusova said. Sacred words.

The only thing is, the Internet accurately reflects reality as it is in our society. Don't blame the mirror, if the Internet is unseemly -- work to make things better instead.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.


See also:

the original at

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

Moscow Times, June 11, 2004

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