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Opposition hits digital roadblocks in Russia

In a country where state-controlled television rules supreme, Russians are turning to the Web to see the other side of their national election. But much like Arab Spring protesters, Russian dissidents on the ground are experiencing technical difficulties.

In this day and age, a well prepared protester needs more than a make-shift sign and a healthy dose of political activism. As protests are increasingly organized on the Web, and even more so with social media, smartphones are becoming crucial to opposition movements. But over the weekend, organizers in Moscow found themselves in a bind: mobile Internet was down.

Activists leading the tens of thousands of protesters attributed the technical disturbance to Kremlin-linked technicians jamming the signal. “The interference has already begun,” Ilya Ponomaryov, a parliamentary deputy and Web entrepreneur who has helped organize protests, told The Wall Street Journal. “They are jamming at events like these, and we’ll see where they go next.”

The Kremlin denies involvement, which Russian Internet providers corroborate. “There wasn't any kind of meddling from the special services," Anna Aybasheva from Vimpelcom Ltd., one of Russia’s leading telecommunications companies, told The Wall Street Journal. As an alternative explanation, Russian Internet companies believe that the multitude of protesters overloaded the system with a ten-fold increase in mobile usage, but critics of the Kremlin said this couldn’t explain similar signal shortages at smaller protests last week.

The Internet poses a particular problem for Putin and his United Russia Party. During his 11 years in power, Putin has been able to curtail aggressive reporting on his regime in newspapers and television broadcasts, but the Internet remains more of a level playing field. “The Internet is the only place where people can learn about what really goes on in the country: the corruption, the lawlessness and the abuse,” blogger Anna Arutiunova told USA Today. “If it wasn’t for the Internet and a handful of opposition print media, we wouldn’t know most of the things we know now.”

When protests began brewing in Moscow last week, state-controlled television originally didn’t provide coverage, instead broadcasting parades of Putin supporters near the Kremlin. Saturday’s massive crowds did find air-time on the national news circuit, but only a watered-down version of the protests lacking anti-Putin signs and chants, USA Today reports. In response, many Russians turned to LiveJournal, the country’s most popular blogging website, to catch webcams of the events as they unfolded.

Despite various cyber attacks last week, LiveJournal experienced a 50% increase in traffic. The Kremlin does have the technical capabilities to shut down the Internet with a monitoring system called SORM, which the government says it needs for criminal investigations. The program redirects online traffic through a funnel, allowing access for the Federal Security System, the successor to the KGB. “SORM can easily be turned into a firewall,” Ponomaryov, a member of the Russian parliamentary committee for communication, told The Wall Street Journal. “I am not 100% sure that they can do it in five minutes by pressing one button. But it would require very little preparation.”

A total shutdown would likely backfire on the Kremlin. At the moment, the government appears to be more geared towards disrupting critical content than blocking it altogether. "They are recruiting all kinds of fake users who put out duplicate posts, saying how much they love Putin and United Russia," Ponomaryov told The Wall Street Journal. "And they are just creating a lot of white noise." It seems as though both sides of the political spectrum are fully aware of the impact of social media. 

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By mail.com Editor Will Cade

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