Between Institutional Dungeons and the Dragons of Public Opinion: Russian Internet Regulation

Gregory Asmolov, a PhD researcher at the LSE, argues that new data from Russia suggest revisiting policies for mitigation of radical Internet regulation, based on his recent paper that explores why Russian public opinion is generally in favour of regulation. This article was originally published on the London School of Economics Media Policy Project blog and can be viewed here

The Russian Internet, also known as Runet, has played an important political role since the turn of the century. According to mapping of the Russian blogosphere that was conducted by the Berkman Center in 2010, while traditional media, particularly TV, have been controlled by the government, Runet allowed an alternative political agenda to emerge and much more criticism of Russian authorities. The political importance of Runet may have reached its peak around the time of the parliamentary and presidential elections in winter 2011-2012, when online technologies were actively used by citizens in order to expose fraud and organize protests.

Since then, however, the Russian authorities have significantly increased efforts to regulate online spaces. The last year could probably be called the year of Internet regulation in Russia. A report from the Russian Association of Internet Users identified 2951 cases of what the Russian experts consider as limitation of Internet freedom in Russia in 2014 (compared to 1832 cases in 2013) including 87 new initiatives for Internet regulation. At the same time, Russian official representatives continue to be active in the international arena to promote their vision of International information security and the need for an international treaty to address these issues.

The increase in Russian regulatory efforts has been met with growing concern from international bodies. Those who monitor developments in the field of online regulation in Russia are primarily focused on following the state’s institutions, but a report published earlier this month by the Annenberg School’s Center for Global Communication Studies’ Internet Policy Observatory (IPO) and the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) suggests shifting attention from the institutional policies to the public opinion. The analysis of public opinion about Internet regulation exposes some unexpected results, suggesting the need to reconsider institute-focused policies that seek to mitigate radical forms of Internet regulation.

The report – Benchmarking Public Demand: Russia’s Appetite for Internet Control – collected survey data from 1,601 respondents who demonstrated a high degree of public support for various forms of Internet regulation, and saw the government as the appropriate body responsible for Internet regulation, contrary to a common expectation that the public would oppose state regulation. Although about half of the sample recognized the positive role of the Internet, many respondents expressed concern about a variety of Internet-related topics, from the proliferation of information about sexual minorities to potential threats to political stability (e.g. 59% said that websites with content concerning homosexuality should be blocked, 46% supported blocking social networking groups organizing anti-government protests, and 43% supported blocking personal blogs that call for regime change).

While some Western Internet freedom advocates argue that the public (particularly Internet users) can be engaged in protecting an open, unrestricted  Internet, the data from Russia suggests that’s not always the case. Accordingly, the assumption of multistakeholderism-based policies that the public can counterbalance institutional actors might not be valid if the public is highly supportive of Internet regulation and trusts the authorities. Professor Monroe Price, director of the Center for Global Communication Studies, summarizes the implications of the data from the report:

Civil society groups and others often think of public opinion as a residual check on authoritarian behavior and as a reservoir of strength for the achievement of international norms. But, as the study indicates, the opposite may be true. Publics can lag on information and media rights. And where both regime and public opinion are restrictive, positive change, especially by external actors, will be hard to achieve.

Following the publication of the report I published a paper, “Welcoming the Dragon: The Role of Public Opinion in Russian Internet Regulation,” that seeks to explore why the Russian public expresses high degree of support toward Internet regulation, and how this situation can be addressed by policy measures.

In the paper I analyze two major hypotheses for the publics’ appetite toward Internet control, looking at demographics and political culture, but ultimately suggest a third. The first hypothesis explores the explanations that rely on a variety of demographic data and seeks to identify the relationship between demographics (including an individual’s internet usage, education, and location) and attitude toward Internet regulation. The second hypothesis addresses the relationship between attitudes toward Internet freedom and political culture in Russia, that according to a number of experts is traditionally supportive of various forms of censorship. The paper suggests that although there is evidence to support both arguments, these explanations are not fully satisfactory.

In light of data on the role of traditional media for the Internet users in Russia my paper suggests an alternative hypothesis. Taking the notion of the Internet as an outcome of social construction it argues that:

As long as the authorities control the majority of TV stations in Russia, the way these stations construct the Internet will contribute to shaping public opinion, including the opinions of Internet users. There is a double advantage to this tactic for the traditional media in Russia, particularly TV. Complicit with the state, they propagate the ‘Internet as Threat’ narrative and legitimate its regulation, which keeps trust in the Internet low and maintains the traditional media’s monopoly on shaping public opinion.

I go on to argue that in this situation, despite the increase in number of Internet users, we should not expect a substantial change in public opinion toward Internet regulation, since public perceptions of the Internet are still dominated by the authorities.

So, how do we oppose Internet regulation in environments with high public support toward limiting Internet freedoms? Relying on Robin Mansell’s notion of “alternative Internet imaginaries” I suggest that policymakers should focus on promotion of alternative ‘imaginaries,’ or ways of conceiving of the Internet. As an example of an alternative imaginary, the paper adopts a notion of the Internet as a technology with the potential to enhance the freedom of its users “to decide between alternative ways of living” that was developed by Mansell. Alternative imaginaries should oppose the presentation of the Internet as a threat, or as a communication technology that just supports commonplace practices such as leisure or communication, and allow “for the realization that the Internet may have substantial, life-changing value for individuals.”

Although my paper is focused on analysis of the situation in Russia, the results of this public opinion survey should provide a wider warning. First, the Russian authorities are continuing their efforts to apply their internal vision of Internet regulation to discussions around international Internet governance. Second, the manipulation of public opinion in order to gain support for Internet regulation through emphasizing a variety of threats can be found not only in authoritarian, but also in Western countries. While the focus on monitoring institutional initiatives for Internet regulation remains an important priority, the core struggle is not a struggle around Internet regulation, but a struggle around the construction of the Internet’s role in the everyday life of its users.


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