Staunton, February 8, 2017 – Moscow’s crackdown on the Russian section of the Internet over the last year has been so sweeping and severe, the international rights group Agora says in its annual report, that it is entirely appropriate to say that the Russian Internet is now functioning under conditions of “martial law.”
But both Russian officials and independent observers say that Agora’s findings must be qualified because the numbers it uses include many actions involving sites such as pornography that most Russians favor controlling and because of a certain confusion about how to count actions in Russian-occupied Ukrainian areas.
The Agora report, available here, says that the number of official actions infringing on freedom of the Internet in Russia increased almost eight times in 2016 over 2015 and more than 230 times over what it was just six years earlier.
In 2016, Agora says, there were 53,004 cases of administrative pressure, 35,019 of limiting access to sites, and 298 criminal prosecutions against Internet users. In addition, it says, politicians and bureaucrats made 97 proposals to regular the Internet, and there were 170 suits against users. All those were many times greater than the year before.
Also affecting Internet freedom, Agora continues, were the following developments: the number of cyberattacks increased four times to 122, the number of judicial bans on information increased more than three times to 24,000, and the number of actions or threats of violence against net surfers almost doubled to 50.
The report suggests that there are important regional differences as far as Internet freedom is concerned. The situation worsened significantly in the republics of North Osetia, Khakasia, Mari El, and Chuvashia in the regions of Byransk, Vladimir, Volgograd, Kostroma, Kurgan, Leningrad, Murmansk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Orenburg, Sverdlovsk, Tver, and Tyumen and in Perm Territory.
But the situation improved, in contrast to the trend in the country as a whole, in the republics of Bashkortostan, Buryatia, Altay, Kalmykia, Mordvinia, and Udmurtia, in Krasnoyarsk and Khabarovsk Territory, in Belgorod, Kaliningrad, Kirov, Pskov, Ryazan, Tomsk and Tula regions, and also in the Nenets Autonomous District.
These patterns are important, but there are two qualifications to the Agora report that Velimir Razyvayev of Nezavisimaya gazeta reports February 8. On the one hand, Russian officials say that some of the official actions against the Internet that Agora counts as violations of Internet freedom are in fact directed at sites like pornography ones that most support banning.
And on the other, the report introduces some confusion as to the total numbers by the ways in which it includes or does not include actions against the Internet in Russian occupied portions of Ukraine such as the Donbass and Crimea, which make strict comparisons with earlier years more difficult, even if they do not affect the overall conclusions about the trend.