Russian Internet crackdown shows complexity of modern transparency

Nations can open information for some and close it down for others.

The list of nations with a comparatively open Internet took another hit this month with the creation of a Russian blacklist of banned websites.

The blacklist is ostensibly aimed at filtering out child pornography and keeping information promoting drugs and suicide out of the hands of youth, according to the Washington Post’s editorial page. But Russian investigative journalists report on Wired that the tool could “wind up blocking all kinds of online political speech” and the infrastructure supporting it could “become a tool for spying on millions of Russians.”

The blacklist has been denounced by Reporters without Borders among others.

This is especially galling considering Russia’s recent decision to join the Open Government Partnership, an international transparency coalition that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a role in organizing.

It also underscores how complex transparency has become in the digital age. A nation can now genuinely open up the spigot of information for one audience while closing it tight for another.

Georgy Bovt, editor-in-chief of the state-sponsored Russkiy online magazine underscored this dichotomy in an interview soon after Russia joined the OGP that Global Integrity Founder Nathaniel Heller noted for its "amazingly brutal honesty."

Here’s the section that got Heller’s attention:

Economist Sergei Aleksashenko believes that the authorities have established the Open Government as a kind of “big stick.” Are Russian citizens ready for dialogue with the government?

Bovt: The Open Government is not meant to aid dialogue between the authorities and the people. It provides for dialogue of a limited number of experts with the government. Of course, experts also represent the people to an extent and may surprise government members with their knowledge of how things really work. But this is not a stick. We have only one stick in the country and that is Vladimir Putin. He holds the necessary political will, and the political system is designed to give him the final say on practically everything. He can listen to the Open Government or ignore it.