Well, we're back from the holidays. Hope you've had fun and are well rested for the year ahead! As far as the digital world in Russia is concerned, this will be a tough one. Roskomnadzor, the ICT watchdog, is struggling to make the controversial blacklist law work - i.e. block all the filth from the internet, while not breaking the natural flow of information. Representatives of governmental and para-governmental agencies have voiced several ideas on how to further "improve" the Russian cyberspace; not all of these ideas were met with universal praise, even fewer were crystallized in actual laws or bills. This doesn't mean a lot, though - after all, it's not like someone hit the "reset" button at the stroke of midnight - chances are, we will see continuation of the general trend of 2012 - which is, to sum up in a few words, the Russian government for the first time investing a lot of its time and effort in the digital infrastructure, for better or worse. One of the 'better', or at least, neutral initiatives stemmed from the 'e-governmental' project. Again, in a few words, it's a g2c, g2b and g2g solution, streamlining the inner workings of the governmental apparatus and its interaction with other legal entities and citizens. That means less paper, less stamps, less signatures and less time spent from filing a request to receiving a response. Well, the part about 'less signatures' is tricky. While civil servants won't need to sign as many papers - the document exchange will be virtual - citizens still have to physically visit governmental offices to pick up legally-significant documents. Anything else was simply deemed not as secure. So, a solution was proposed - how about we create a system where only one physical signature is required? That would be creation of a governmental email system with digital signatures. Each physical mailing address would be eligible for registering a number of governmental ones - one for each resident. This email system would be highly secure and allow digital signing of legally-significant documents. Eventually this would lead to elimination of the need to pick up or submit any sort of documents in person - at least, that's the theory. Not much else is known at this point of time. It might or might not be integrated with the state services web portal which is already operational and, dare I say, somewhat successful. There is one thing which was not approved by experts - development and maintenance, should this project take off the ground, will be entrusted to Russian Post, the de-facto monopoly postal service. The problem is, no one likes using it - service quality is poor beyond description, due to understaffing and outdated infrastructure. The company is actually in a vicious cycle - it can't update its infrastructure or pay its employees more due to low profit margins and it's not making any money due to extreme inefficiency and overwhelming employee turnover. So, experts suggest the service first figures out how to improve its snail mail operation, instead of spreading thin and delving in the e-services market.
Speaking of legal initiatives and the internet, let's have a look at our eastern neighbor, China. This country is not known for its subtle approach to regulating the internet, and the 'Great Firewall of China' is a well-known phenomenon - something which some people are afraid will eventually surround Russia. Last year the country has decided to strip social network users of anonymity - services known as Weibo started requiring real personal data from anyone wishing to post comments. The Chinese government came up with the requirement for all users of prominent microblog services, such as Sina Weibo to
register using their real name and identity-card number; the procedure was to be enforced by governmental agents working within these companies. Names and IDs public were not made public, though – fellow users still see them as nicknames. But the social network services do know this data so at any time a governmental request can prompt the website to give up personal information.
But now they've went one step further - one giant step, I would say. Right before 2013, the Chinese authorities gave its citizens an early New Year's present - from now on even accessing the internet requires personal identification data. At the same time, internet service providers are now facing stricter protocol regarding protection of personal data. Well, while this does sound like it's in line with the general policy of the country to have total control over the cyberspace, I'm not really sure it's that different from practices in other countries. Here in Russia, all communication contracts require such personal data - and, apart from "burner phones", it's pretty much the same in North America and European countries- the idea there is to make sure the person signing up for a service actually pays for it. Oh, and pays for the music and songs downloaded illegally, of course - but that's a whole other story.
By the way, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s look back at last year’s milestone of mandatory disclosure of personal information when using microblogs. You know those “verified by Twitter” accounts? A badge used to indicate the person Tweeting is actually the real deal. Mostly these are used by American and international celebrities to make sure fans know they’re not following impostors. This actually kind of encourages harmless impersonation – I mean, if a celebrity account can get this badge for identification purposes than badge-less accounts should be considered fake - and there’s a lot of those, posting obviously-fake tweets for humorous purposes. On the flipside, regions where only a few people have the badge are prone to mishaps based on identity theft. Here in Russia, sure, we have Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev verified by Twitter, and that’s about it. I’ve already mentioned numerous blunders where fake accounts spread confusion – one of the most prominent example had a fake account for the Russian Interior Ministry confirming last year the death of Syrian president – a tweet that, without fact-checking, spread like wildfire and scared enough oil traders to cause a spike in prices which remained uncharacteristically throughout several hours – about 1% above previous price. And incidents like this continue to happen – I wonder if Twitter will popularize the practice of verifying Russian Twitter accounts.
Meanwhile, back to China – they too have these verifications. Well, guess what? Some companies say that for a fee of around $80, they can provide official verification for microblog accounts, apparently allowing customers to register under fake identities – you can relatively easily find such services on sites like TaoBao. So yeah, with such black markets openly operation, it is unlikely that anything will suddenly change in the world of Chinese Weibo networks. Will it also translate to possibilities for those valuing their privacy when it comes to internet surfing? I would not be surprised.
Yet another piece of news regarding Chinese microblogs. One of the largest services, Sina Weibo now has a new celebrity, hailing all the way from across the Pacific – Brad Pitt. Yeah, not sure how exactly relevant this is, but it’s just too weird to pass on. It’s especially odd since the international Hollywood star doesn’t have a Twitter page. His account has the “verified” symbol – but, as we’ve learned, for all we know it might have been purchased on the black market. For a while the account had just one message : “It is the truth. Yup, I’m coming.”, referring to the possibility of his visit to the country, from which he was reportedly previously banned for his Seven Years in Tibet movie. The message has since been deleted, but the account has almost 200,000 followers, amassed in just a couple of days. So far, no news in this regard. I should note that other high-profile celebrities on Sina Weibo are Tom Cruise and Emma Watson. Perhaps soon it will become a trend. After all, while starts do have fans in China, Chinese
fans cannot used either Facebook or Twitter – these services are banned. So, as the saying goes, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammadmust go to the mountain.
Actually, such localization is also evident here in Russia. While we do have access to Twitter and Facebook, some people don’t really speak English. Well, no worries – a few celebrities have authorized official pages in one of the largest Russian social networks VK. Last December the band Coldplay was the latest international celebrity to launch their official page in the Russian social media space. Other musicians include Paul Van Dyk, The Prodigy, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias. Some of these pages are in Russian, some both in Russian and English and, some, like Coldplay, exclusively in English – which I would think kind of defeats the purpose of having a presence in the Russian cyberspace, but regardless, Coldplay already has almost 65,000 VK fans. So there you have it – despite the Internet being seemingly borderless and international, there is still room for improvement and gaps to overcome.