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Last Updated: Monday, 10 April 2006, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
News fuels Russian internet boom
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News website, Moscow

What would you be clicking on today if you were surfing Runet, the internet's Russian sector?

Computer mouse with Putin portrait (image by permission of Russian Mouse)
Russian mice are available with motifs such as a portrait of Putin

Perhaps the latest joke about President Putin at vladimir.vladimirovich.ru or house prices at izrukvruki.org? Or maybe you would be looking for updates from your favourite news websites?

Vladimir Kara-Murza, whose career as a journalist and presenter reads like a history of Russian independent TV, suggests the average Russian user goes to the internet "to buy boots".

He does not believe that the internet makes a real impact as a news medium in Russia. Television, he says, still rules the news in Russia and terrestrial television, he adds, is firmly under Kremlin control.

As one of Russian TV's most seasoned journalists, Kara-Murza may be sceptical about the power of new media, but rapid growth of the country's web community points, at the very least, to its potential.

Decade of news

Internet news really came of age in Russia in 1996 when the presidential election results went out online, a recent academic study argues.

Worldwide: 12.8%
USA: 68.1%
UK: 62.9%
EU: 49.8%
Russia: 16.5%
Ukraine: 11.4%
China: 8.5%
Uzbekistan: 3.3%

source: World Internet Stats 2005

No more than 5,000 users had access and most would have been based abroad, Maria Lukina wrote in her paper for Moscow State University.

By the turn of the century, Russia had about two million users and now, 10 years later, it accounts for nearly 24 million.

At 16.5% of the population, Russia's web community is still small compared to the European Union, where the average is nearly 50%, and about 30% in newer member-states from the east, such as Hungary and Poland.

Yet the community's expansion in recent years has exceeded forecasts.

"It used to be true for any Russian site that approximately 40% of the audience would be from inside Russia and 60% from abroad," says Dmitry Shishkin, a senior producer at BBCRussian.com.

"In the last five or so years we noticed a growing domestic audience, particularly in Russia itself and among Russian speakers in the other ex-Soviet states."

Usage remains highest in Moscow and Central Russia but improving telecommunications mean that 12% of Siberians, for example, are now users.

Expectations are also growing among Russian users: they tend to have broadband connections rather than dial-up, as many log on from their workplace.

But if the information technology is there, how good is the actual information?

Alternative views

Vladimir Kara-Murza's current employer is RTVi, a channel based in the United States and funded by Vladimir Gusinsky, the fallen oligarch behind Russia's most important non-state channel in the 1990s, NTV.

Vladimir Putin gives an online interview to the BBC in 2001 (conducted by Bridget Kendall)
The BBC interviewed President Putin in a 2001 "Kremlin webcast"

Viewers inside Russia wanting RTVi's critical take on events must either use a satellite dish or watch it through the net.

The net is, of course, infinitely more than a vehicle for TV news and RTVi itself has a sister news site, newsru.com, which is popular for the speed of its news updates.

Established Russian sites like utro.ru for news and expert.ru for comment compete with online versions of newspapers like izvestia.ru, while the BBC and other leading foreign media bring their own Cyrillic services to the web.

Users looking for alternative information on the Chechnya conflict can click on both pro-rebel Russian-language sites based outside Russia such as chechenpress, and Chechen sites from within Russia such as savechechnya.

Runet positively teems with forums on every conceivable subject: I was intrigued to see a piece about Moscow's childcare facilities which I wrote last summer being heatedly discussed on golgofa.ru, a Russian BMW fan club.

Touching the web

Reports that Russia's parliament, the State Duma, was looking at legislation covering internet content rang alarm bells in some quarters this year.

State Duma
The idea of using a global filter like China's 'Great Firewall' is not being debated because it is not in the spirit of current policy - it would not get through, it's unreal
State Duma official

The Kremlin, some speculated, was looking to extend its control over Runet, having tamed television and all but a few of the major newspapers and radio stations.

The actual legislation, prompted by an attack on a Moscow synagogue by a knifeman who apparently visited anti-Semitic internet sites, is aimed at specifically combating extremism - or "fascism, nationalism and the incitement of inter-ethnic and religious strife".

Various Russian MPs have attacked the internet, one famously describing it as a "cesspool", but there does not yet seem to be any serious attempt to exert state control online.

"Of course, you hear speeches about clamping down on the internet, just as extreme views exist everywhere, but there is no major legislation in the offing," one Duma official involved in drafting the new legislation told the BBC News website.

"The idea of using a global filter like China's 'Great Firewall' is not being debated because it is not in the spirit of current policy - it would not get through, it's unreal."

The experience of the older media suggests that if enough Russians go online, and not just to "buy boots", some attempt at political control may be made.

For now, it may be safe to say that "policing" on the net is confined to Fairy Tales From The Underground.

That is the diary of a Moscow Metro transport cop, which became one of the country's most popular blogs - another area of the web Russians are avidly exploring.


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