Friday, April 25, 2014

The Sad Reality Behind Putin's Claim that the Internet is a CIA Project

Vladimir Putinby Nomad

Yesterday Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Internet was an ongoing CIA plot. 
Once again, he demonstrated how he is not interested in providing an alternative to US-dominated hegemony. What Putin wants is something a bit more predictable and a bit more obvious.  

The Alternative that Wasn't
Sometimes I think there's a tendency in the West to give too much credit to Vladimir Putin. Oddly, the West has always seen the Russian leader as some kind of chess master when Putin's approach has been anything but subtle or even very clever. 
Lately and in many ways, the Russian president seems to have exposed himself as a somewhat backward leader without much in the way of a constructive vision. He is found playing the same word games that once discredited the Soviet Union

The great modern Russian tragedy is that it began with such promise. Over and over. Russia's greatest strength -even during Soviet times- has been that it offered an alternative view of the world. We didn't have to live in a world dominated by special interests. Through struggle, we could make the world better. True, it was always reactionary but at least, that vision provided a kind of independent analysis of the West. 
So went the theory at least. 
Today, only Edward Snowden might agree with that. Some American-born reporters on Russia Today might still think that's true but, from the outside, that idea looks a little naive.  While rushing to condemn the West for all its many faults and unscrupulous behavior, defenders of Putin require some skillful mental gymnastics to ignore something that is growing clearer every time Putin opens his mouth. 

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia's view is neither different and definitely not indifferent. The Kremlin's objectives are shaped by an agenda not unlike any corrupted capitalist empire in the West.

Latest Proof
In the end, where is the alternative vision that  Putin's Russia offers the rest of the world? Centralized government, domination by and for the majority, silencing of all dissent and controlling the media?
Such a shame too, because if ever there was a time for a respectable alternative to corporate overreach, now is that time. Tone-deaf Putin seems blissfully unaware of this. 
As if the world needed any evidence more after his heavy handedness in Ukraine,  Putin provided another example of the clumsiness of his leadership and his lack of vision.  Yesterday, Putin claimed that the Internet was a CIA project. As Associated Press reported: 
Speaking Thursday at a media forum in St. Petersburg, Putin said that the Internet originally was a "CIA project" and "is still developing as such." 
Putin's been tuning into Alex Jones again apparently. But is there any truth to the claim? Putin hasn't cited any specifics. 
The CIA uses the Internet for its own purposes, no doubt about that. Some of those purposes undermine the egalitarian spirit of the Internet. That's a shame but that's not exactly what Putin is claiming here. 
And the true and very real danger here is that Putin's rationale will become every third-rate tyrant's excuse to control the freedoms that the Net offers. 
The Kremlin has been anxious to exert greater control over the Internet, which opposition activists - barred from national television - have used to promote their ideas and organize protests.
After the Arab Spring- which probably could only have happened in the age of democratized mass communication, the Russian leadership saw the proverbial writing on the wall. The Internet was, he noted, a threat to government control. Only the CIA could have come up with something as diabolical as that.
(Never mind, that the CIA has been caught numerous times with its pants down by humiliating Net revelations.)

Indeed, Putin never expressed such concerns or espoused such theories when Edward Snowden was busily hanging all of America's dirty laundry on the world's clothesline. Back then, when it came to American hegemony, an unrestricted Internet was not a bad thing at all. Whether Snowden now realizes- a little late- how strategically he was manipulated is another question.

Putin's remarks underscores the Russian parliament's attempt to rein in the free flow of information through social media. 
Russia's parliament this week passed a law requiring social media websites to keep their servers in Russia and save all information about their users for at least half a year. Also, businessmen close to Putin now control Russia's leading social media network, VKontakte.
Why should any social media website hold on to information? The answer is obvious. For the sake of later prosecution or at least, the threat of it.

The present excuse is that, since the Internet is- as Putin warns us, a CIA plot, then censorship is merely a matter of national security.
To resist that influence, Putin said, Russia needs to "fight for its interests" online.
Russia, in this case, means the Russian government, and certainly that doesn't include the Russian people themselves. Perhaps very obedient ones..maybe.

A Long History of Interference
In Article 19, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions..without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Unfortunately, for some obscure and arbitrary reason, the Kremlin has decided that for Russian citizens, when it comes to the Internet that particular human right simply does not apply.

Of course, there are many countries who are now facing similar problems with the Internet. And for leaders in many countries the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is little more than a joke. (And some people are laughing in the US too.) The difference is that those countries do not pretend to offer an alternative to Western imperialism to the young people of the world.  
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Throughout its long history Russia has had a unquenchable penchant for government censorship. Over the centuries it has found any excuse to limit its citizens' access to outside influences. 
Even under the more enlightened rule of Peter I, the government set penalties for publishing or disseminating printed materials from other foreign printers. According to one source, his government also introduced the crafty stipulation that the books had to be published "for the glory of the great sovereign" and were not to include any "abasement of our Imperial Majesty [...] and our state.
Thus the entire printing industry was in the hands of the state and the Tzar himself was the master censor. 
Today the Internet is everybody's printing press.

Ironically, up until Peter's reign, it was the Russian Orthodox Church that had a monopoly on what could and what could not be printed inside Russia. Today, the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called the Internet "a gift from God."
In January, the Pope said:
"Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity.
Solidarity? That very word is blasphemy to a former KGB mastermind like Putin. He remembers all too well what happened the last time a Pope talked about solidarity
From the Catholic Church's point of view, it's quite an improvement from a institution that practically invented the idea of censoring all contrary or heretical ideas.   

Putin Added to the List
It is certainly no wonder, given this long-entrenched rejection of openness, that Putin feels uncomfortable with an uncontrolled discussion and shared information. He is not the only leader by any means, to eye the Internet with anxiety. Even the most democratic leaders have a kind of love/hate relationship with it.

In America, there is a more subtle form of censorship going on, the attacks on net neutrality by corporate interests. Suddenly information can be ranked by speed and access, not by public interest. Corporations, with the aid of all-too-willing politicians, are doing their best to make something good and absolutely remarkable into something very much like a depraved prostitute.

If Putin really wished to provide a viable, respectable alternative to the West, attempting control the Internet is the very last thing he ought to try. He should set up thousands of unrestricted servers with high speed connections to the world. 
That's not going to happen, of course. 
Instead, if one Russian journalist is correct, Putin will set about destroying the Internet as we know it. 
Journalist Andrei Soldatov says:
"In two years we may get a completely different Internet, It might be a collection of Intranets instead of one Internet. Actually I think it's very possible."

Yesterday's remarks take us one step closer to that pathetic future. Yesterday the Russian leader demonstrated to the world is just another game-player. A control freak who will not tolerate any challengers. 

Like some kind of Agatha Christie murder mystery, everyone seems to have a strong motive to throttle the life out of the Internet. 
In Russia, Vladimir Putin is the chief suspect in this crime waiting to happen.