Tell me a little bit about your project: OVDinfo.org. What do you hope to achieve? And what role does the Internet play?
Our project came into existence after the first major protest against mass election frauds in December 2011 during which a lot of people were arrested. We realized that something needed to be done after many of our friends were arrested – so we started gathering information about who was being incarcerated, where they were taken, and what was being done to them. Very quickly, however, it became clear that we could do something more interesting and practical than simply an emotional project.
OVDinfo.org was what we came up with. At the beginning, we had two leaders; I was responsible for the media part, whereas, my friend and colleague programmed our database and was responsible for the technological aspect. We decided that we would be the liaison between the media and the detained activists. We would gather the information, gain credibility and have the media use our information. Then, in order to liberate people, we would enable lawyers to use this information. Finally, the third stage – which evolved independently – was to demonstrate the level of political repression in Russia.
The information we gather daily shows the extent of the problem. The goal is to eradicate detentions, but if they do happen, they must be safe and legal. We scare the police with our evidence. As soon as their departments and their names show up in our database, the police become scared to physically abuse detainees. Law enforcement is scared to violate the law because they understand that they are being watched. This is our main vision.
Along the way, we’ve come up with new ideas. For example, we interview the detainees. These are psychological, not media interviews, that reveal how the system is structured – how the police, prisons and courts function and interact. This understanding is necessary for reform; we are collecting this information to be able to make our own suggestions and improve the system. Perhaps, this will not happen now, not in the current political situation, but someday, it will be possible.
Your second question was regarding the Internet. In many ways, I am not a supporter of the theory that the Internet significantly changes one’s life, nor that it changes activism in the sphere of politics or human rights. Because for me, one of the main roots of our movement are the chronicles of the samizdat; which were produced by soviet dissidents and human rights defenders of the 60s and 70s. The Internet did not exist during their movement, but they too gathered information and protected political detainees – these chronicles then became known in all the foreign embassies and all the foreign correspondents whom had offices in Moscow. As a result, the Soviet regime could no longer easily suffocate or kill or imprison these detainees. Of course, the Internet changes the circumstances, but mostly it speeds up and eases our tasks. Our main instrument is a hotline, so when someone is detained, people can call this phone number, but they can also do this via Twitter or an online form. However, this is only a question of speed, it does not make a principle difference. Of course, information spreads online much faster than the cycle of a daily newspaper. We publish a piece of news 15 minutes after we find out about it, and within 30 min it is already published in all Internet news publications. But if this was a newspaper; within 24 hours, the public may no longer be interested. However, the Internet is not the biggest factor. Media is media and the Internet is just another media.
More seriously, the Internet influences all kinds of instruments like crowdsourcing. We can say that crowdsourcing would not be possible without the Internet; it would just be too expensive. In this way, we can gather information from other cities without having our own branches and staff in those locations. For example, we made a video service with the help of crowdsourcing. [We put out a call] that if you have a video of people being detained at demonstrations, you can easily and comfortably upload it to our site. From there, lawyers or journalists can use it for their purposes. Of course, without the Internet, such services are impossible.
We want to use this aspect of the Internet to enhance coordination. For example, right now we are coordinating legal help by sending e-mails and making phone calls. This takes a lot of time. So we want to create a simple service where you can request legal help and this electronic request would automatically go out to ten human rights-defending organizations; one of them would then agree to help. This would all happen online without extensive moderation/efforts. These kinds of technologies and services are how the Internet contributes to human rights. What is surprising is that this is still very underutilized. Everyone is talking about it but there are so few in reality. We’ve searched many sites of international organizations and very few of them are using online instruments and online rights defense. This is truly new ground, everything else is just a question of speed; fifteen minutes instead of a day.
In comparison to television and printing press, the Internet is relatively uncensored in Russia. Of course, sometimes there are DDoS attacks that are carried out by groups who may have links to the government. In your activities, have you come across such attacks on your site?
No, our site has not been attacked. I don’t know why. But we did experience something that was more unpleasant for us, which was a DDoS attack on our hotlines. For example, when 500 telephone calls come in per minute, it is no longer possible to get through. Our site hasn’t been DDoS’ed [this is a verb], but this is a very widespread tool for fighting free media. Perhaps it hasn’t happened, because we are still a very new organization. Larger organizations, such as Memorial or Human Rights Watch, have yet to be DDoS’ed. They really do tend to attack mass services, such as blog platforms.
Furthermore, this doesn’t just happen randomly, but usually on the eve of some important event - to overload a site two days before a big demonstration, for example. They just take out the blog platforms completely so that people can neither communicate nor coordinate. Over the last two years, the instances of DDoS attacks on independent media have increased. As you rightly noted, this is somehow tied to the government yet it hasn’t been proved. Since it is the Internet, everything is quite anonymous, but the impression is that a budget is set aside in advance. Perhaps, they haven’t had enough time to include our website in their budget.
In relation to Internet media compared to television.
In response to your question regarding the difference between Internet and television as a form of media; we monitor very carefully who cites our website and uses our information. Surprisingly, our data is used by everyone, including government-owned newspapers, but mostly in the Internet versions, not the print versions. Television companies also use our information occasionally, but, once again, on their internet releases rather than on air.
Besides DDoS attacks, do you foresee more serious threats to Internet freedom in Russia now or in the near future?
Yes, the situation is rapidly getting worse. Indeed, the Kremlin became scared of Internet freedom after the revolution in Egypt and the killing of the Libyan leader. They believed the tall tale that the revolution was a result of Twitter and Facebook, which is, of course, not the case. Without grassroots activity, it would have been impossible. Internet is just an amplifier of activity. Without that activity, there would be nothing.
Despite this however, the Russian government started to adopt new legal measures to curb Internet freedom, such as black lists. In Russia, we love children, they are almost holy, so under the guise of protecting children from pornography, drugs, and suicide, the government created a black list which was formed via very non-transparent conditions. Yet what is most interesting is that the system used IP addresses; by using one IP address, there could be a pornographic site or my site, drug propaganda or a blog post. This is absurd. Everyone was very much against this law, including Yandex, the search engine. The government promised that it would take all this into consideration, but of course it didn’t.
Within one month of its creation, our Pirate Party released an analytical report that 95% of what goes into the Black List does not relate to pornography or drug propaganda. So far, this list hasn’t been used in political battles, but the government can close an IP address forever simply by registering a pornography site to the same IP address.
There is another negative development. Right now we have GONGOs, or so-called civil society organizations created with the help of the government. In one of the provinces the GONGO conducted an experiment to create a White List. This means that when you buy an Internet package, you will have access only to the White List of websites, which have been checked for the absence of “bad” content. Currently, in this list are 5,000,000 websites, which is less than 1% of all world websites. This is a Russian innovation. This doesn’t even exist in China. So this all happens when you sign a contract with your Internet provider. But if you don’t want this, you have to sign a separate contract saying that you don’t want to protect your children from pornography. This experiment is only in one province and remains unofficial – but still, it’s an alarming development.
Yet more than the above problems, there exist several other issues. For instance, companies that are close to the government acquire social platforms to exert control. Livejournal – originally owned by an American company - was the most popular blog service in Russia; and the government simply had it bought up by a Russian company.
Moreover, social media is being put to criminal trial for spreading extremism. This is just another tool for putting pressure on activists. The latest example was against activism to close a school – an activist organization posted a quote by Hitler that stated, “If you wanted to control your population, close your schools.” They were then blamed for spreading extremist propaganda. Of course, it had nothing to do with real extremism.
- Another incident was somewhere in the provinces. A political activist received a warning that he was noted for extremist activity because another user put a photograph with extremist content onto his vKontakte [Russian version of Facebook] wall. But it was the owner of the wall that was blamed. Of course, this is a very alarming episode, especially in the provinces. In Moscow, such an act would not have been possible – people protest such human rights violations, and activists can usually get good lawyers. In the provinces, however, there are very few activists – it’s a difficult moment.
Yet the DDoS attacks remain the most common activity. It is very difficult to protect your site from them. Even the biggest sites cannot protect themselves. It is just too cheap to overload a site, about 200 USD for even the most heavily-securitized IP addresses. At the same time, to be DDoS’d is not catastrophic.
You mentioned the difference between Moscow and the provinces. But there is also a difference between generations. For example, the International Research and Exchange Board’s Media Sustainability Index of 2012 indicated that the younger generation has a bigger expectation of freedom because they use the Internet, which is less censored than television. What effect might this generational difference have on the situation in Russia?
There is a general sense that Russia is changing on a societal rather than political level; but they are mostly related to consumer behavior. Automobile insurance works quite well in Russia and people are becoming more used to following a contract. They know that if they are paying for insurance, they are promised a certain service and they will receive that service. Since we have a lot of drivers, this affects a big part of society. They become used to signing contracts and following through with them. This carries over and now people demand the same from the government with whom they feel that they are in a binding contract. They pay taxes, after all.
Another factor is that now in Russia you can buy 40 different types of cheese, 40 different types of jeans and so on - so people are used to choices. But despite this variety, we have Putin over and over again. So people who have become used to consumer freedom are beginning to carry this over to the political sphere. Internet works in the same way, when you can look at this site or that site and compare different sources of information, you begin to question what you’re told. You’re told something from the “box” [how Russians refer to the TV] but you say “I will check that on Wikipedia”. So those who are used to using the Internet have stopped trusting the “box.” It is true that the Russian television audience is aging and decreasing. In 2012, for the first time, daily Yandex users in Russia surpassed television viewers. This change clearly effects the way society thinks and behaves in regards to its rights.
Yet, I don’t think that this is such a difference in age. For example, I was an observer at a voting station and there were some elderly official that said “be careful because whatever you say, he will find something about it on the Internet”. They think the Internet is one, big wasteland. So this understanding [of checking information] is not just among the younger generation but everywhere.
What do you hope to achieve as a Freedom Fellow? You have come to Geneva and will continue on to Washington, D.C. What effect do you hope this will have for your activities in Russia?
Our project’s team is very interesting - we have journalists and programmers. We believe that throughout the world, NGOs do not fully utilize modern technologies for spreading their agenda. We are quite good at doing this in the context of Russian NGOs and we are interested in sharing our competences, to show them how to better utilize the Internet to spread their agenda. We would like to create trainings that emphasize knowledge sharing –that outline how an NGO site should look, and what activities that site should develop.
During this Fellowship, I will meet a large number of professionals in the NGO world. Their experiences will enrich my understanding and allow me to network. We then hope to collaborate in the future and help NGOs to modernize their websites and Internet activity. I ended up here unintentionally- I was invited to come here, so I came here. In the end it was timely and exactly what my colleagues and I believe we need.
Besides networking, do you hope to exert any pressure on a political level?
This fellowship was created to network and share experiences. There are many other forums that exert political pressure. We also engage in this by translating all of our reports into English and sending them around the globe. This fellowship is more about learning from each other. We are not alone - there are many people facing similar problems in other countries.
We love data and we love to make this data available to others for their use. This is, of course, only possible with the help of the Internet. This is the feature of the Internet that will change the world.
What is next for OVDinfo.org?
Besides software development of NGOs, we are expanding geographically - covering big cities outside of Moscow. We also want to expand our topics. Currently, we cover mostly detentions, but we want to also cover all types of political repression. We already cover police and freedom of assembly, so now we want to cover courts, prisons, and political migration. We are planning to do this in the next year or two. In a way, we want to become like propublica.org, an American, independent, non-profit media which produces investigative journalism on public interests by working with open data. They then distribute it via the Internet and by re-publishing at the partners’ traditional, off-line media.