Russia is beefing up its information fortress

The Kremlin tightens its grip over the internet and media

MOSCOW, Russia — This country's Security Council usually focuses on military strategy, energy security, and territorial integrity.

These days, however, it's taking aim at a fast-widening sector: "national security in the information sphere."

Chairing a session recently, President Vladimir Putin batted down rumors the authorities want to place the web under "total control."

But his words weren't exactly reassuring, since his parliament has suggested otherwise by approving legislation critics say stifles free speech and blocks access to information.

One thing is clear: As the Kremlin deepens its geopolitical standoff with the West, it's also tightening its grip over the internet and media at home to better fight what officials here call an "information war" with its adversaries.

The recent Security Council meeting came after a recent media report claimed the body was mulling ways to isolate Russia from the global internet — or hitting the internet "kill switch" — during national emergencies.

Officials have denied the claim, arguing that their goal is in fact to prevent others from kicking Russia off the web.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that any such measures are aimed against what the authorities here say is the West's increasingly confrontational stance against Russia.

He cited recent calls in Britain to block Russia from the SWIFT banking network as punishment for its role in Ukraine's crisis.

"We hear crazy voices demanding that Russia be cut off from SWIFT, [and] there's no guarantee that tomorrow we won't hear those crazy voices demand to cut Russia off from the internet," Peskov told the daily newspaper Kommersant.

Such discussions are only the latest development in a series of restrictions rolled out in recent months.

Last week, lawmakers expedited the implementation of a law requiring foreign internet companies to store the personal data of their Russian users on domestic servers, which could make it easier for the authorities to elbow out social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.

That's important because unrestricted social media played a key role in the reemergence of civil society here in recent years.

Officials have also moved to block websites they deem to be "extremist," a notoriously ambiguous charge used against a range of political activists and ordinary protesters who received hefty prison sentences for their participation in a 2012 street rally that turned violent.

According to the federal media watchdog, more than 600 websites have been blocked in the past six months alone, the result of a law passed last winter allowing the authorities to shutter sites without a court order.

Among them are the sites of several leading opposition politicians and at least one popular news agency.

However, some experts predict that attempts to enforce a Chinese-style firewall may prove difficult.

Karen Kazaryan, head analyst at the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, points to the traditionally entrepreneurial spirit of Russia's web in contrast to the Chinese government's strict control early on.

"As a result, Russia became not only one of the pioneers in the development of the internet, but one of the most globally-connected countries," he says. "To implement the 'Chinese model' without breaking this structure is impossible."

Nevertheless, the authorities are trying. Another law that took effect in August requires any blogger with more than 3,000 daily readers to comply with the same state regulations as a large media entity.

The wave of restrictions isn't affecting just web-based media.

Yet another piece of legislation passed last week will limit foreign ownership of Russian media outlets to 20 percent. Critics say that would effectively nationalize several top foreign-owned publications such as the Russian-language edition of Forbes and the venerable Vedomosti business daily, which is jointly owned by the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and Finland's Sanoma media company.

That would put Russia's ever-shrinking critical media — now confined to the web and a small handful of newspapers — at even greater risk of falling under the Kremlin's influence.

Russia's upper house of parliament on Wednesday approved the bill, which now requires only Putin's signature to become law.

Russia is also boosting funding for state media, already a well-oiled information machine that's rallied an overwhelming majority of Russians behind Putin's conservative policies.

It's helped stoke the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and fuel a narrative that pitches a resurgent Russia against a decadent, aggressive West.

Observers worry the negative long-term effects will far outweigh the short-term benefits of a propaganda coup, even if it's helped produce sky-high ratings for Putin.

Georgy Bovt, a journalist and political commentator, believes the measures will lead to what he calls an "industry of bans" — an even more bloated bureaucracy that will suck away resources from other parts of the economy to enforce its own policies.

"The obsession of our political class with neo-isolationism interferes more and more with their making informed and intelligent decisions," he wrote for the Gazeta.ru online portal Monday. "And each new step along that path will cost the country more dearly."

This article, by Dan Peleschuk, originally appeared at GlobalPost.

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