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Sunday, December 09, 2007

More on the Internet Crackdown

Forbes reports:

The sweeping 70% victory of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in the recent Russian elections sucked the air out of the opposition's attempt to gain even one seat in parliament. Now Russians could have less of an independent voice in cyberspace. LiveJournal, the U.S.-based blogging service more Russians use than any other, was acquired on Monday by Russian media holding company SUP--another sign that Russians are losing outlets for personal opinions. Twenty-eight percent of the traffic on LiveJournal is generated by Russian speakers. So there's a certain logic for LiveJournal's parent, San Francisco-based Six Apart, to sell the site to the Russians.

Prior to the acquisition, SUP had been managing LiveJournal's Russian-language postings since last year. But to give you an idea of the fear even expatriate Russians have of being identified or tracked simply for expressing themselves openly, here's a sample of postings following SUP's management announcement last year:

"I am living in Germany, but my journal is in Russian, at least the biggest part of it is. Still, I do not wish to get any help from SUP. Is that possible for me to not have anything to do with them?"

"Can you confirm that SUP will not have the possibility in principle to access the private entries?"

Independent views aren't truly accepted in Russia. More journalists have been murdered in Russia in the past 15 years than anywhere else except Iraq. Among them: Anna Politkovskaya, a longtime writer for Novaya Gazeta, one of the country's few independent newspapers (minority owned by Mikhail Gorbachev), who reported on United Russia's ongoing attempts to make sure the opposition is stifled. Her sometimes inflammatory reports of party corruption and electioneering did not endear her to the Kremlin.

Indeed, Russians have a swiftly narrowing choice of independent mainstream reporting from which to choose--the big newspapers are owned by tycoons with chummy relations to the Kremlin--and the government owns the biggest TV station, Channel One. Even so, some Russians continued to nurture a flickering light of democracy through a boisterously candid online community. In cyberspace, investigative reporting, opinionated discussion and, yes, speculative rumor, all thrive. And so far, the Kremlin hasn't bothered to do much about it.

SUP's ownership structure, however, provides little reassurance for Russians who are concerned that the Kremlin may have engineered SUP's acquisition of LiveJournal. Indeed, Alexander Mamut--majority owner of the quickly expanding SUP, which owns one of the biggest sports Web sites in Russia and sells online advertising via Yahoo (nasdaq: YHOO - news - people ) and other ad networks--told journalists in the late 1990s that he had friends in the Yeltsin family. Mamut, who was mentioned in connection to the Bank of New York (nyse: BK - news - people ) money-laundering scandal of the late-1990s, has become wealthy with astonishing speed. Forbes Russia estimates that Mamut is worth nearly $1 billion, thanks to investments that run the gamut from insurance to telecoms.

Six Apart's reasons for selling to the Russians make business sense. It is hard for Western companies to monetize new technology opportunities in Russia, given the difficulties in processing online payments there. Still, the site has been growing. SUP says it doubled Live Journal's audience over the last year.

Will SUP find ways to suppress the postings of Russians on Live Journal? Not necessarily--especially because it could hurt the bottom line. Nervous posters certainly can find other platforms--even if they are lower-profile--to air their views. Nevertheless, it does seem that Russians may be losing yet one more outlet to be frank and provocative without fear.

A reader writes:

Mamut took control over the cyrillic/Russian side LAST year. NOW he has control over ALL of Livejournal. I quote from the article below "LiveJournal, the U.S.-based blogging service more Russians use than any other, was acquired on Monday by Russian media holding company SUP." That is why this is so serious. It is not "Enemy at the Gates" but "Enemy well inside the gates". Access to the US blogosphere from within. The article's question "Will SUP find ways to suppress the postings of Russians on Live Journal?" misses the point. A Kremlin associate (and his minions) will now have access to ALL Livejournal postings.

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