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DDoS attacks used to curb Internet freedom in Russia

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Politically motivated distributed denial of service attacks against journalist and opposition websites appear have been occurring in Russia, says a Feb. 15 analysis of web traffic by Arbor Networks.

The run up to the national presidential elections in the Russian Federation saw widespread protests aimed against Vladimir Putin, who became prime minister in 2008 following two consecutive terms as president. Despite his nominally subservient rank to President Dimitry Medvedev, most accounts agree that Putin has held on to real power. Following the Russian election held on March 3, Putin will assume a third term as president. Protests have continued amid accusations of fraud, although Putin has said his victory was legitimate.

Politically motivated DDoS attacks are not uncommon in Russia, notes the Arbor Networks blog post. "We've seen this sort of thing in the past, specifically in the 2009 run-up to the elections where opponents to Putin and Medvedev were attacked," it states.

In fact, DDoS attacks and offline threats--in some cases, violent beatings or assassinations--are key government or government-sympathizer strategies for controlling online speech, says a Berkman Center for Internet & Society paper released March 2.

However, the Russian Internet itself, although widely believed to be closely surveilled, is "surprisingly free from government interference," the Berkman Center paper says. In contrast to traditional media, which have become less free since the late 1990s, there appears to be no significant filtering of content by Internet service providers. Russians themselves do not appear to alter their online behavior in reaction to assumptions about government surveillance, the paper adds.

As a result, the Internet has become a locus of "community building, protest organization, and numerous other more creative forms of collective action," the paper states. Organizations that undertake issue-based campaigns mostly designed online seem to have more success in Russia than primarily offline organizations such as political parties, it says.

However,  the paper also notes that it can't measure whether the relative prominence of online groups is actually indicative of broader popularity.

The paper also sounds a warning note about the possibility of future Internet repression under Putin's third term. Putin "tends to philosophically align himself more closely with the security services and ministries that have argued for greater control over the Internet."

For more:
- go to the Arbor Networks blog post
- go to a Social Science Research Network webpage to download the paper

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