Why Russians support Internet censorship

August 22, 2015 Yekaterina Sinelschikova, RBTH
According to a joint report by American researchers and Russian sociologists, 49 percent of Russians are not opposed to Internet censorship. They do not perceive attempts to control the Internet as an infringement on the freedom of speech, experts explain.
Among the most "dangerous" content that should be banned, Russians name homosexual propaganda, social network groups linked to organizing anti-government protests and videos by the Pussy Riot band. Source: Eugene Kurskov/TASS
Among the most "dangerous" content that should be banned, Russians name homosexual propaganda, social network groups linked to organizing anti-government protests and videos by the Pussy Riot band. Source: Eugene Kurskov/TASS

Nearly half of Russians (49 percent) believe that information on the Internet should be subject to censorship, while 58 percent would not mind it if – in the event of a national threat – the Russian segment of the Internet is shut down completely. This conclusion was reached by the authors of the report "Benchmarking Public Demand: Russia’s Appetite for Internet Control."

The report was written by Erik Nisbet, associate professor of communication, political science and environmental policy at Ohio State University, and was produced as a part of the Internet Policy Observatory, a program at the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. This study is based on a survey designed and implemented by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) in partnership with the CGCS.

Among the most "dangerous" content that should be banned, Russians name homosexual propaganda (59 percent), social network groups linked to organizing anti-government protests (46 percent) and videos by the Pussy Riot band (46 percent). "From the perspective of assessing the public’s demand for Internet freedom, the results are somewhat discouraging," the head of the CGCS, Monroe Price, concludes in the report.

 

Source of vague threat

The study was published in English in February 2015, however national Russian media took notice of it only in early August after the findings were also published by VCIOM. The poll was conducted among Russian residents over 18 years of age, in 42 regions of the country. Of those polled, 42 percent use the Internet all the time, 20 percent use the Internet from time to time and 38 percent do not use it at all.

According to another pollster, the Levada Center, which RBTH has spoken to, the margin of error aside, the number of Russians who support Internet censorship remains quite stable.

In an October 2014 Levada poll, the introduction of Internet censorship was supported by 54 percent of respondents. "They are in favor of censorship when it comes to things like child pornography,” Levada Center analyst Denis Volkov explains. “And there is an important distinction between the opinion of those who use the Internet and those who do not. For the latter, the Internet is a source of a vague threat. They do not know what to do about it and so it seems to them that the best thing may be just to ban everything.

 

Invisible ban

It is important to note that the question about a total ban was a hypothetical one: censorship in Russia is banned by the constitution, and President Vladimir Putin has more than once declared that "Russia has no intention of restricting access to the Internet or taking it under total control".

However supportive Putin may be in word, he has also created an environment of self-censoring on the Internet. In April 2014, the Duma passed amendments to an anti-terrorist bill that would allow Russian bloggers to be prosecuted or fined for publishing content that might threaten national security.

In fact, since 2012, the number of initiatives aimed to block various Internet resources has been steadily growing, says chief analyst with the Russian Association of Electronic Communications Karen Kazaryan. "Not all of them become laws, but a large number of those initiatives, our experts conclude, were restrictive in nature, i.e. aimed not at developing the industry but rather at controlling the Internet," he points out.

For example, in 2012 a mechanism for blocking websites without a court order was introduced and a register of banned Internet resources was established. Since 2014, it has become possible to block Internet resources containing calls to extremism and mass unrest for an indefinite period of time and without a court ruling.

In an interview with the BBC Russian Service, Anton Nosik, a prominent Russian blogger and online media expert, questioned how representative the study was, adding that in practice censorship in the Russian segment of the Internet already exists: "There are several dozen or several thousand district courts in Russia, each of which has powers to ban websites, including Wikipedia, YouTube, Google. All it takes is a ruling by a district court. When that ruling comes into force, the Justice Ministry enters the website banned by the court on the federal register of extremist literature. From that moment on, the website in question must be banned on the whole territory of Russia."

 

Obligation of the state

Nevertheless, according to the director of strategic projects at the Institute of Internet Studies, Irina Levova, attempts to control the Internet are natural while the state is trying to develop the Internet sector since there are also cyber threats to be taken into account. "It is a direct obligation of any state to ensure the security of its basic infrastructure and citizens. In the U.S.A. too, there is the first amendment that bans censorship, however, in 2001 the Patriot Act was adopted, which in effect makes it possible to do anything when it concerns national security," she says.

Overall, sociologists and experts conclude, the majority of people prefer not to pay attention to restrictive initiatives because they are not affected by them directly. At least, so far there has been no rise in protest sentiment toward this issue. "Many people took notice of the proposal by the Russian Union of Copyright Holders to charge 300 rubles a year from every Internet user for the benefit of copyright owners. But that was more of an exception since the move concerned people's financial interests. Everything else is received normally; after all, people are not expected to grasp what legal risks these initiatives may cause for individual companies," Levova points out.

Denis Volkov of the Levada Center agrees: "The majority of people certainly do not see it as an attempt to restrict their right of access to information."

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