Russia accused of crippling online media

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The Chinese government is suspected of using the Web to break into computers at the Defense Department and other U.S. agencies between 2003 and 2005, in what was dubbed Operation Titan Rain. Since 2001, Chinese “hacktivists” have organized attacks on and defaced U.S. Web sites to oppose what they call the imperialism of the United States and Japan.

China set up an extensive surveillance system to prevent its citizens from accessing online materials considered obscene or politically subversive. Russia does not filter or block Web sites, and the Internet plays a critical role as the only form of mass media over which the government has no control.

The Kremlin, either directly or indirectly, owns the three major national television networks, major radio networks, wire services and print publications. Meanwhile, the remaining independent media face growing pressure to engage in self-censorship.

In March, Mr. Putin created an agency that will license broadcast, print and online media. The following month, the government banned what it considered extremist statements — such as those made by pro-separatist Chechen Web sites or supporters of legalizing marijuana — and broadened the definition of extremism.

The legislation covers slander or libel of a government official, but it’s up to a court decide whether it counts as extremism.

The new law resulted in a string of fines, warnings and trials for Russia’s online journalists, bloggers and participants in politicized Web forums. Critics fear the Kremlin could use these and other measures to resurrect Soviet-style media monitoring and censorship.

So far, however, the Web operates largely outside government control and has grown into the opposition’s main tool for recruiting and organizing.

Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion turned opposition leader, was only half-joking when he told the Associated Press in May: “YouTube for the Russian opposition is the only way to communicate.”

But reliance on the Web also makes the opposition vulnerable to hackers.

The outlawed National Bolshevik Party says its Web sites were repeatedly hacked between February and April, as the nationalist group used the Internet to marshal “Dissenters’ Marches” in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

The attacks were sophisticated as well as massive, said Alexei Sochnev, who is in charge of the National Bolsheviks’ online network.

“They killed the entire U.S. server that hosted us,” he said.

When the attacks ended, traffic fell by about two-thirds, from 6,000 to just 2,000 visits a day. Group leaders say the crash cut attendance at opposition rallies.

Mainstream media have also come under electronic assault, especially when they carry information likely to draw the attention of the government.

Kommersant’s Web editor, Pavel Chernikov, said the major daily newspaper’s site was attacked in early May. He called it retaliation for publishing a transcript of the interrogation of Boris Berezovsky — a self-exiled oligarch who lives in London — by Russian investigators.

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