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As Putin Crushes Russia’s Internet, Obama Stands By

The technologically hip president is abetting the ruin of online freedom. (Also read: "The Russian Kleptocracy File: Bank Records and Real Estate.")

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April 17, 2011 - 12:00 am

Both the United States and Russia began gearing up over the past few weeks for their coming presidential elections next year. As with most things, the course of events in the two countries was rather different.

In America, the opposition party candidates began jockeying for position and the incumbent declared his intentions. In Russia, where there is no opposition party and the incumbent is a mere figurehead, the corrupt dictatorial regime began systematically eradicating political dissent on the Internet.

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, there are three significant sources of dissent, all based mainly on the Internet: bloggers on the LiveJournal (LJ) host, the website of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and the website of shareholder rights activist Alexei Navalny, who is something like the Russian Ralph Nader.

Between March 24 and April 8, all three came under a vicious, determined, and overwhelming DDOS attack from a powerful, shadowy enemy — and all three faltered and fell from their Internet perches. One of the LJ bloggers who disappeared was Dmitry Medvedev, the so-called “president” of Russia. Another LJ blogger, Timur_nechaev77, asked: “Who ordered the attack on LiveJournal is a rhetorical question. Who has been carrying out a mop-up operation of the mass media and the Internet for the last 10 years?”

In Russia today, nobody has any doubts about the answer to that question. In Washington, D.C., though, it seems our government remains very much in the dark.

Both Navalny and Anton Nosik, the éminence grise of the Russian-language internet (or RuNet), were blunt and clear in pointing the finger of blame for the attacks at the Kremlin. Everyone in Russia understands that the next national election is likely to be the last, with Putin returning to power in essence as “president for life” and a final neo-Soviet crackdown on civil liberties to follow soon after. The Internet is a complicated thing, hard to control, and practice makes perfect.

A few months ago, Rustem Adagamov, the single most powerful LJ blogger, warned: “The Internet is the last free territory [in Russia] — but it won’t stay that way for long.” It didn’t take long for him to be proved right.

Just as the DDOS attacks subsided, a high-ranking figure in the Russian state security forces — formerly known as the KGB — announced that his agency favored shutting down “foreign” Internet communication hosts such as Skype, Gmail, and Hotmail. These services, he said, use encryption technology that is difficult for the KGB to break, and therefore pose a direct threat to Russian national security.

Putin’s moves to shut out contact between Russia and the outside world appear deranged when you know that Russia is facing a massive and increasing shortfall in foreign investment. With little domestic savings to speak of, Russians depend on foreigners to float their boat, yet their government is doing all it can to prevent them from understanding the needs and concerns of foreigners, which only further alienates foreign money from the Russian market.

And Putin’s goons are going much further. The security forces are already openly bragging about reading the e-mail of opposition leaders, openly storming the offices of opposition publications at will, and openly seeking to bribe LJ bloggers to toe the Kremlin line. They are, in other words, practicing not just to destroy the Internet’s ability to influence the next presidential “election” in Russia, but to bring about a sea change in the way Russians get information from the Internet — permanently rendering the web useless as a means of challenging the Kremlin’s power.

Barack Obama was supposed to be the first tech president. Supposedly youthful and “with it,” the BlackBerry-wielding Obama was supposed to lead us into a brave new world of technological progress. But what he’s actually doing is simply watching as the most serious obliteration of tech-based expression that the world has yet seen takes place in Russia. In fact, Obama is enabling the disaster by helping Medvedev score propaganda points and keep his docile domestic population off guard.

Obama has done nothing at all to stand up for American values in Russia. Instead, he’s munched burgers with Medvedev, unilaterally given up missile defense in Eastern Europe, and made it clear he thinks Medvedev is a progressive figure that America should support. This allows Medvedev to sell himself to his electorate as a man respected by the outside world, further undermining the legitimacy of those who would challenge him.

In fact, to the shocking contrary, Obama may actually support the Kremlin’s efforts to wipe out privacy on the Internet. His administration is actively seeking to crack open Skype and Gmail, just like the Putin Gestapo. Who knows? Maybe Putin and Obama are sharing notes and secret midnight whispers.

In short, one of the most memorable events of the Obama administration may well be the laying of the RuNet in its grave — and the rise of a fully realized neo-Soviet dictatorship in Russia.

(Also read: “The Russian Kleptocracy File: Bank Records and Real Estate.”)

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