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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 10:18 GMT
Russian internet politics
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey
If 2000 was the year investors discovered the Russian web, the Runet, 2001 looks set to be the year of regulation - and perhaps the year when the Kremlin's currently murky designs in the realm of internet media become clear.
Bills currently circulating in the Russian parliament ought to provide extra protection for intellectual property and give legal weight to electronic signatures, thereby improving conditions for the small, but rapidly growing e-commerce sector.
Up to now the Russian online world has largely escaped regulation, if you don't include the Ministry of Justice resolution requiring internet service providers to pay for the hardware that allows security services to snoop on their clients' e-mails.
Like Russia itself, the Runet is full of surprises - such as the website of the historic Gum shopping mall on Red Square, which offers virtual tours from a roller blader with a webcam strapped to her head ($10 per hour), or the chat site for submariners which provided some of the best insights into the Kursk submarine disaster.
There are also plenty of sites which specialise in Russian anekdoti - the apparently hilarious jokes which leave most Westerners wondering what they missed - and masses of kompromat - dirt dished on the rich and famous, some of it bought from freelancing state or private security officials, the rest pure fantasy.
His stylish campaign website for the March presidential election featured some natty graphic design, and the government site opened during his spell as Prime Minister actually publishes government news, rather than merely a list of names and titles.
It was on this site that Mr Putin chose to unveil his first quasi-manifesto, saying notably that great powers should not to be measured in numbers of tanks, but in their ability to create and use advanced technology.
The second Chechen war, which was launched in 1999 and made Mr Putin's domestic reputation, has in fact been fought both with tanks and technology.
At the height of the conflict the KGB's successor, the FSB, hacked into a phenomenally successful Chechen website, while Chechen hackers did the same to a government-sponsored site carrying Russia's version of events.
Reportedly, the FSB even started offering jobs instead of sentences to hackers caught committing cybercrimes.
The Kremlin's favourite PR consultant, Gleb Pavlovsky, lists among the achievements of his Effective Politics Foundation (FEP) three sites which were part of a bitter negative campaign against ex-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Though negative television coverage undoubtedly did far more than anything on the net to damage these two politicians - seen at the time as potential winners of both the parliamentary and the subsequent presidential elections - Mr Pavlovsky argues that the web is a powerful PR tool because it reaches an influential elite in Russian society.
Election tricks aside, one attraction of the net as a source of news in Russia is perhaps that it is less politically partisan than other media, or less obviously.
There are a number of good news sites whose political sympathies are hard to discern, and some of the news sites Mr Pavlovsky has had a hand in creating are also relatively tolerant of the opposition.
The Runet has come of age in the Putin era of strong government and broad political consensus, and it shows - it contains fewer traces of the political polarisation of the Yeltsin years than older media.
But a few more dissonant voices might be healthy.
Strana.ru, lavishly funded from anonymous private sources but with audio and video content from state radio and TV, aspires to be a "Russian CNN".
It already has several regional sub-sites, and there are plans to link it to revamped state media websites, creating an even larger pro-Kremlin web resource. The project has the potential to dominate the Runet.
Mr Pavlovsky called then for a special centre in the Kremlin to take charge of "information security", and reports quickly circulated that a "rapid reaction unit" had been set up to gather and disseminate kompromat on journalists who remained persistently off-message.
The decision to question NTV journalists about personal loans they received the station's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, may have been one of the fruits of this policy, though there is no proof.
More recently, Strana.ru has given notice of its intention to embarrass Russians who criticise their country while abroad, by making sure their comments are reported in full at home.
Probably the Runet will be able to take such developments in its stride, but there is a risk it will become web of government intrigue rather than free information, and an instrument of political control.
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