You may have heard about the kerfuffle in the past few days over an FSB officer’s remarks before a Russian government committee that the country should ban the use of Internet services, like Skype, gmail, and Hotmail, that use foreign algorithms in their encryption. Presumably because they are difficult to intercept and decode, the officer said the programs pose a threat to Russia’s national security.

That statement was followed by prompt disavowals. An anonymous Kremlin source told the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that the security officer was stating his own opinion and that the government had no plans to ban those services – although it has set up a working group on how to resolve the issue, due to report its findings on 1 October.

Meanwhile, Google released a statement saying, essentially, that if Russian law enforcement needs some information, it should just ask: “In accordance with the agreement on mutual legal assistance, when a request is received from foreign law enforcement agencies, Google Inc. provides the necessary information.” The company’s ‘transparency report” isn’t very up to date, listing government information requests only as recent as the first six months of 2010. In that period, Russia comes off looking pretty good, with far fewer removal requests than many Western countries. Then again, Russia has far fewer Internet users than many Western countries.

RIA Novosti then asked some Internet security experts about the efficacy of banning these programs. Most said it was reasonable for the security services to be concerned about them (Western intelligence agencies would be, too, one said), but they pointed out that sophisticated Internet users can encrypt their own data transmissions and that the volume of data moving over a program like Skype was too massive in any event to be thoroughly monitored.

The consensus now seems to be that one security officer spoke a little too freely about one drastic approach to a pervasive problem. But in the middle of the controversy, responses from the presidential administration (against) and the government (possibly for) showed differences between Medvedev and Putin, and, more importantly, between what they offer to Russians, according to Dmitry Oreshkin, a respected political analyst.

Oreshkin told the Ekho Moskvy radio station:

In any event, a new menu is being developed in front of our very eyes: Putin, who is oriented toward law-enforcers and the special services, and Medvedev, who is oriented toward progressive initiatives, modernization, informatization, and Internetization. One way or another, this template, this matrix is being incorporated into public opinion and it no longer matters whether it is being inserted artificially or whether it is a consequence of real political competition and struggle for the presidential post. There is competition inside elite groups and, one way or another, they present their interests to society and society, one way or another, in jest or in earnest, is forced to make a choice.

The most encouraging thing about that reading of events is the assumption that at least Russian society is going to get to choose.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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