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Russian Internet through the BRICS lens
January 8, 2013, 5:28 pm

Marina Pustilnik discusses whether the increasing influence of the BRICS countries will impact upon internet freedom in Russia

Jim O’Neill who once coined the BRIC term out of convenience and later became one of the main advocates of its substance, has taken a lot of heat for the whole BRIC idea in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

It seemed then that the loosely-tied acronym will disintegrate as different countries that make it up were demonstrating diverse reactions to the crisis. But today, four years later, BRIC is not only around, it has become BRICS, adding South Africa to its diverse fold of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

There are summits, intergovernmental commissions, integration activities of all sorts (including steps such as integration of futures trading or usage of local currencies in trade) and a general feeling of new-found importance.

But while the benefits of economic integration are difficult to doubt (unless, of course, you are an ardent anti-globalist), if we look at other areas, such as the Internet, greater consolidation of BRICS countries has already led many to wonder whether it would have an adverse impact on Internet freedom in Russia? And here, two answers become available to us.

Domain wars

One is a pessimistic scenario that envisions Russia and its BRICS colleagues taking a revolt against what may be termed the “monopoly” of Western countries and businesses over the most popular internet domains, such as .com, .org and .net, and most traffic-driving internet “nodes”, such as Google, Youtube, etc.

The basis for such possible “revolt” are two-fold. One is obviously political. National governments hold sway over country domains, such as .ru, .cn or .za, and authorities can close the websites in those domains, but hosting your site in the .com or .org domain basically ensures that it cannot be taken down by the authorities for political or commercial reasons.

The second one is economical and – it should be noted specifically – is not limited to the BRICS countries. In December of 2012 the members of the International Telecommunications Union – the regional telecom providers – met for their first conference in 14 years, and the main topic of their discussion? Their desire to force the big American traffic eaters – Google, Youtube, Facebook and others – to pay for the delivery of content to regional audiences. The implications of such move are so far left unspoken, but broadly speaking they can be summed up as: “Give us a share of your profits or see access to your resources blocked from our countries”.

Returning to the doomsday scenario, the BRICS countries that account for no less than one third of the global population would decide to pull their weight in order to have more say in the control over more popular domains. And should that bid to wrestle control from the arrogant First world fail (as it inevitably would), things can get kicked into high gear.

The scary scenario would be the all-out ban on all sites from the .com, .org and .net domains – a technological feat of wonder, but nonetheless possible. And so everyone who would wish to address the large population of these countries would have to open sites in the national domains that would be subject to scrutiny and whims of the national governments. Sounds far-fetched? Well, that’s because it is. But stuff like this is what sells.

Blocking access

This over the top parallel reality is something that people like to discuss, to break their lances over while arguing about the exact technical characteristics of the hardware that would be necessary to implement the above said ban. I am writing this article and reading Twitter, where people are seriously discussing the supposed initiative of Russia’s presidential administration to close access to Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal and Google+. Retweets and 140 symbols or less of “oh my god, no!” abound. Nobody wants to take a moment to reflect on the virtual impossibility of such a step.

And this brings us back to the second scenario of what would happen to Russia and its Internet scene in case of further consolidation of BRICS countries – a very boring scenario, one has to admit. Because the answer in this case is “not much”. The wonderful thing that is called Internet has been with us (as in the general public) for about 10 years now and it has completely transformed our lives. It transcends geographical territories and political borders (with the notable exception of the Great Chinese Firewall).

Internet today is too ubiquitous to warrant such moves as the attempts to close a country completely from the “outside” world. Yes, China has attempted to close off some parts of the Internet, but China has the advantage of the economies of scale. It can create its own Twitter and block the real one, because the amount of Chinese users is so staggering, it justifies such steps.

If the Russian government tried to block access to YouTube, it would quickly discover that there are many powerful players who would not want to see the service closed and moreover, that it has raised ire of not just a few tens of thousands of active Twitter users, but of a million-strong army of office clerks who no longer can imagine their life without YouTube videos of LOL cats and shows such as +100500 that presents “the best” of Internet memes and videos (although some could argue about the criteria used for selection) and is actually produced in affiliation with a state-owned TV channel.

What other effect can BRICS consolidation have on the Russian internet scene, what would it mean for its bloggers, what would happen to the freedom of speech? In two words – not much. Or maybe in one word – nothing. That’s boring, but that’s closer to reality than any doomsday scenario that foresees Russia walling itself off from the Western internet services and sites. India has a thriving Internet market, which is open and does not have any local versions of the main social network/blogging services that permeate the rest of the world.

The same can be said for Brazil, where even once-popular Orkut (which was also not Brazilian) has lost out to the Facebook leviathan. Yes, there are vKontakte and Odnoklassniki in Russia, and these won’t be going away in the near future – but even if they are standing strong, Facebook continues to gain on the Russian market, LiveJournal audience is growing and Twitter is used these days by everyone – from the former president and government ministers down to the political bots and companies seeking to enhance their “social media presence”.

So, getting back to the original premise of this article, final thoughts on the effect that ongoing BRICS consolidation would have on the Russian internet market. No matter how much I like to have strong and maybe even radical views, this time I find nowhere to go but to the boring answer of “everything will stay pretty much the same as it has been, and there will be no Great Russian Firewall and no ban on global social networks or websites operating in the .com domains”. And, perhaps, this sort of thinking is radical in itself.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.