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Foreign Media Outlets Targeted in Chinese Malware Attack

Experts at InfoWar Monitor have discovered that journalists working for foreign media outlets in China, including Reuters, the Straits Times, Dow Jones, Agence France Presse, and Ansa, are the targets of a recent malware (malicious software) attack. Nart Villeneuve and Greg Walton suspect that the attack is connected with increased security around the Communist regime’s upcoming 60 year anniversary:

These attacks correlate with reports of increased security measures within China as a result of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. These increased security measures have also been extended to the Internet, with providers of anti-censorship technology reporting increased levels of blocking that prevents people from accessing the web sites of foreign media and news organizations.

One of the key findings in the report is that the attack appears to have originated at a (possibly unsuspecting) university in Taiwan:

The IP addresses currently used by the malware are assigned to Taiwan. One of the servers is located at the National Central University of Taiwan, and is a server to which students and faculty connect to download anti-virus software. The second is an IP address assigned to the Taiwan Academic Network. These compromised servers present a severe security problem as the attackers may have substituted their malware for anti-virus software used by students, employees, and faculty at the National Central University.

It is difficult to prove the extent to which governments use malware and other computer attacks as a tool of foreign policy, but many experts have strong suspicions that, for example, Russia may be exploiting the criminal networks that exist around malware and computer crime in that country for political ends. (More malware comes from Russia, China and the US than anywhere else in the world according to Stopbadware.) For more details on the recent attack in China see the full report or check out this article in the Globe and Mail.

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Russians Look Abroad For Political News

In the Russian newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets, Mikhail Rostovsky and Mikhail Zubov argue that Russians must now turn to foreign media to learn about politics in their own country:

Russian society learns about important political developments from foreign experts and foreign media outlets, these days. Consider the news that Medvedev and Putin will decide what to do about presidency in 2012 among themselves instead of letting the people make the decision. Who do we owe this knowledge to? Correct. To American political scientist Nikolai Zlobin. Who did ex-President Mikhail Gorbachev choose to inform that this was not how presidents were supposed to behave? He told it to BBC. Finally, who was Yurgens talking to when he made his startling discovery? He was talking to Reuters.

They are talking about Igor Yurgens, an advisor to Russian President Medvedev who, it seems, is not afraid to tell it like it is to the foreign media. He recently compared Putin to the tottering Brezhnev, and here’s what he told Newsweek last February when he was blaming the government for the economic crisis and the need for democratic reforms:

Freedom of speech is vital. It’s one of the reforms Russia needs most. Then the old institutions of power should be broken. Now is the time to develop real democracy. If the crisis grows tougher, the reputation of United Russia [the ruling party] will suffer gravely. At the moment we do not have any real political competition, and few dare to struggle against the ruling United Russia party. The government needs to strengthen democratic institutions now—it’s a matter of the basic principles of survival. Just as the state created its “vertical of power” by fiat, it now needs to dismantle reform by fiat—for the sake of rescuing itself.

I’d be interested to see if there is any data to back up the assertion that Russians prefer foreign news outlets for their political news. Our exploratory studies of the Russian blogosphere show that Russian Web native sources like are popular with politically oriented bloggers, but foreign news outlets like BBC also do quite well. Even US supported Radio Free Europe does relatively well, especially with more opposition minded bloggers and when compared to Radio Sawa, Al Hurra and other misadventures in the Middle East. And apparently Medvedev is even looking to bloggers for ideas these days.

H/T: Johnson’s Russia List

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Perestroika II Begins Online?

Обращение президента - Дмитрий Медведев_ Россия, вперед! - Газета.Ru
By Karina Alexanyan

On the morning of Sept 10, Dmitri Medvedev published an astonishing article entitled “Forward, Russia!” describing his vision for Russia’s future.

Open Democracy’s Dmitri Travin provides an interesting analysis of the article, comparing it with some of Gorbachev’s first steps under Perestroika.

What is significant about the article – in addition to it’s content of course – is that it did not premier in the morning papers. And there was no mention of it on television before it went “live”. Rather, Medvedev chose to address Russia’s citizens via the online newspaper “”.

In addition to being known as a venue for criticism of the Kremlin and commentary by opposition members., is a “webnative” publication, meaning that it has no print version and doesn’t exist outside the internet.

As a result, at least initially, the RuNet served as the exclusive forum for the entire discussion of the article. The article’s appearance was eventually announced on the “democratic” radio station “Ekho Moskvy” and word spread from there. By noon, the article was available on the Kremlin’s site as well.

The trajectory of this article provides an excellent opportunity to measure the spread of information (especially information this important) from the Russian internet to the mainstream.

In addition, given that the internet remains an elite medium in Russia, and that an overwhelming majority of Russian’s get their news from television, Medvedev’s choice of implies that his intended audience, at least initially, was a select and narrow group – the young & educated urban elite.

Reports on the effect of Medvedev’s announcement are mixed, and, predictably, vary by the source. In his Open Democracy piece, Travin states that the article caused a “sensation” on the internet. In contrast, The Heritage Foundation’s Yevgeny Volk suggests the article received a lukewarm response:

Tellingly though, Medvedev’s target audience, Russia’s young internet readership, had a lukewarm response to their President’s insights. His comments failed to make the spotlight in numerous blogs, being overshadowed by society gossip and sporting events. It looks like Russians are accustomed to hearing Kremlin insiders speak the right words but make no effort to overcome hardships and rectify mistakes.

RussiaProfile also focuses on the reaction online, stating that:

…judging not by the mass media, but by the discussion on LiveJournal, the article was equally poorly received both by our homegrown loyalists, who immediately forgot about loyalty and cruelly criticized the text that came from their favorite supreme authority, and by the regime’s traditional opponents, who mocked the call for the willing and the dissenters to jointly pull Russia out of the present semi-quagmire. 

Nevertheless, the article – and its repercussions – remain a hot topic. A week later, a Yandex search for the Russian terms “Medvedev” and “Forward Russia” still comes up with over 3 million results.

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Twitter Attack May Be Part of Russia-Georgia Dispute

According to the New York Times, yesterday’s DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack on Twitter originated in the disputed Abkhazia region in Georgia, one of the two semi-autonmous regions that Russia and Georgia fought over last August. The Times attribute the claim that the attack was an extension of the broader Russia-Georgia dispute to Bill Woodcock at Packet Clearing House. The Times writes:

It was not clear who initiated the attack, Mr. Woodcock said, but it was likely that “one side put up propaganda, the other side figured this out and is attacking them.” He said he found evidence that the attacks had originated from the Abkhazia region, a territory on the Black Sea disputed between Russia and Georgia.

Mr. Woodcock said the disruptions did not appear to have been caused by a botnet, or network of thousands of malware-infected personal computers.

Rather, he said, at about 10:30 a.m. E.S.T., millions of people worldwide received spam e-mail messages containing links to Twitter and other sites. When recipients clicked on the links, those sites were overwhelmed with requests to access their servers. “It’s a vast increase in traffic that creates the denial of service,” he said.

It is certainly plausible that some group linked to Russia would initiate an online attack near the anniversary of the Russian-Georgian conflict, since DDOS attacks and other online tomfoolery has coincided with other foreign policy disputes that Moscow has been involved in, including attacks against Estonian and Ukrainian sites, and last year DDOS attacks actually preceded Russian military action against Georgia. In the Estonia case, a leader of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi claimed credit for the attacks.

The Guardian also cites Facebook’s security chief as saying that the attack may have been aimed at a single Georgian blogger, Cyxymu:

Max Kelly, Facebook’s chief security officer, told CNet news that the strike was an attempt to silence Cyxymu – an outspoken critic of last year’s conflict between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia – as the anniversary of the war approaches.

“It was a simultaneous attack across a number of properties targeting him to keep his voice from being heard,” Kelly said. “We’re actively investigating the source of the attacks and we hope to be able to find out the individuals involved in the back end and to take action against them if we can.”

However, this type of attack on a large international site based in the US like Twitter doesn’t bear the hallmarks of previous attacks plausibly connected to Russia, since they were focused on government, NGO or banking sites in Georgia, Estonia or Ukraine. Since large sites with better security than Twitter, such as Google and Facebook were also attacked, as well as Gawker which also went down earlier this week, it leaves one to wonder whether someone else was behind these attacks, or if this is just a new tactic for those sympathetic to Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy stances. It is also possible that the role of twitter in recent protests in Iran made the site a juicy target for those trying to make a statement about the role of these technology platforms in foreign affairs.

UPDATE: Cyxymu blames Russia for the attack.

UPDATE 2: The Daily Beast points out that the attacks could be from Ahmadinejad’s henchmen or participants at the annual DEF CON hackers convention in Vegas after one too many complimentary beverages.

UPDATE 3: Morozov profiles Cyxymu, who he calls “the first digital refugee.”

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Rhetoric of fear and telecom regulation in Russia

Rhetoric has been always a very powerful tool in promoting both policy and business agendas.  Russian telcos are now putting the old-good argument of security in promoting legislation that may allow them to succeed where their European and other colleagues have failed.

It seems that all around the world the telcos feel threatened by Voice over IP (VoIP) applications that run on their infrastructure and offer free of charge voice services.  Skype is the most commonly used example in this debate and the first one to absorb the fire.  Only recently, the European telecos tried to argue for unfair competition and asked to discriminate against the use of VoIP on their networks.  The European Commission took a firm stand against it arguing for principles of net-neutrality also on mobile networks.  In the US, AT&T, together with Apple, work against VoIP applications such as Skype and Google Voice to be used on the iPhones.  It will be now up to the FCC to take a stand on that issue.  Finally, the Israeli leading mobile service provider, Cellecom, is also seeking ways of limiting its users’ access to VoIP and some other technologies, under the slogan of “quality of service.”  The Israeli Ministry of Communication actually took a pro net neutrality stand, but the argument is still going on.

In Russia, however, the local industry decided to take a shortcut.  Instead of appealing to amorphous concepts such as “fairness” in competition or “quality of service” it turned to a more basic instinct – fear.  According to this article, Russian telcos have warned the Kremlin that:

“…the foreign-made VoIP software, easily downloaded from the Internet, is a threat to national security because it is resistant to eavesdropping by Russia’s intelligence agencies.”

To make things a bit spicier, they also added some nationalism.  The lobbying group was quoted saying that:

“The majority of brands operating in Russia, such as Skype and Icq, are of foreign origin and therefore we need to ensure the defense of national producers in this sector”

While some civil rights activists are concerned with the state openly talking about spying on people, others view it a bit more pragmatically.  In a recent hearing on the subject it was estimated that in about 3 years 40% of voice traffic in Russia will be VoIP.  This creates a significant incentive for the industry to cooperate on legislation that “will bring order” to the VoIP market.  Indeed such an effort is currently underway in Russia.

There was limited, but critical reaction on this topic in the mainstream Russian media and  even the blogsphere reacted only on the margines; some expressed concerns, others healthy sarcasm, and other scepticism about the substance of the story.   While it remains to be seen what regulation of VoIP will eventualy turn out to be, the variety of arguments for such regulations is certainly interesting to watch.

(a version of this post was originally published at ThinkMacro)

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Russia has World’s Most Engaged Social Networking Audience

By Karina Alexanyan

According to a recent report by ComScore, based on data from its World Metrix audience measurement service, Russians are the world’s most engaged social networkers. ComScore’s report is based on data collected over May 2009. According to the report, 1.1 billion people aged 15 or older went on line during that month, and 65% of those – or 734.2 million people – visited at least one social networking site.

According to ComScore’s measurements, Russians use social networking sites at a rate that far exceeds the global average – spending 6.6 hours per month on social networking sites (rather than the average 3.7), and viewing 1307 pages, rather than than the usual 525.

Russia was topped the list of 40 countries that Comscore measured. Brazil ranked close behind at 6.3 hours, followed by Canada (5.6 hours), Puerto Rico (5.3 hours) and Spain (5.3 hours). The U.S is at number 9, with 4.2 hours.

Top 20 Highest Engagement Social Networking Country Audiences

Country Average Hours per Visitor Average Pages per Visitor

World-Wide 3.7 525

Russia 6.6 1,307
Brazil 6.3 1,220
Canada 5.6 649
Puerto Rico 5.3 587
Spain 5.3 968
Finland 4.7 919
United Kingdom 4.6 487
Germany 4.5 793
United States 4.2 477
Colombia 4.1 473
Mexico 4.0 488
Chile 4.0 418
Ireland 3.8 462
Turkey 3.7 427
Venezuela 3.7 454
France 3.6 526
Australia 3.4 374
New Zealand 3.4 386
Switzerland 3.2 430
Italy 3.2 39

Source: Comscore

According to Comscore, 59% of Russia’s monthly internet audience (about 19 million) visited at least one social networking site in May, 2009. It is worth noting that this percentage is based on numbers that are slightly lower than FOM’s measurements for the same time period. Where Comscore reports a monthly internet audience of 15 and older in Russia of about 32 million people –FOM measures Russia’s monthly internet audience of adults 18 and older at 35 million.

Judging from their data, three Russian based sites clearly dominate online social networking – (similar to Facebook) with 45% of the total internet audience, followed by, (similar to Classmates) with almost 25%, and “My World” on, with 20% of the audience. The remaining sites have under 5% each.

*Out of the 38 individual countries currently reported on by comScore around the world.
**Excludes traffic from public computers such as Internet cafes or access from mobile phones or PDAs. is Russia’s Largest Social Networking Site

Of the 31.9 million people who accessed the Internet in Russia in April, 18.9 million visited at least one social networking site, representing a reach of 59 percent of the total online population. The most popular of these sites was Russian-based with 14.3 million visitors, followed by (7.8 million visitors), – My World (6.3 million visitors) and (1.6 million visitors). attracted 616,000 Russian visitors, up 277 percent versus year ago.

A Selection of Leading Social Networking Sites in Russia

Property Total Unique Visitors (000) % Reach of Total Online Population
Total Russian Internet Audience 31,907 100%
Social Networking 18,877 59% 14,310 45% 7,750 24%
Mail.Ru – My World 6,321 20% 1,624 5% 942 3% 839 3% 616 2% 433 1%
MySpace Sites 371 1% 214 1%

Source: Comscore

It is interesting to note that this data does not consider LiveJournal as a social networking site. LiveJournal is Russia’s most popular blog hosting service, but it is more of a blog/social networking hybrid, as it has many social networking features such as a “friends” lists, communities etc. Including LJ data in this measurement would cause the numbers to skyrocket even further.

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More on Obama’s visit to Russia: What does the Russian public think?

We have already seen that Russian mainstream media have mostly neglected the meeting between Obama, Putin, and Medvedev, and the blogosphere was more interested in beer than in the US-Russia relationships. While the mainstream media can be viewed as the voice of the government and the bloggers as online elite, one can still wonder what did ordinary Russians think about this visit.

There is limited public opinion data about that. In June, the Analytical Center Levada ran two relevant surveys prior to Barak Obama’s visit. In the first, they asked about the Russians’ attitudes towards the US and in the second specifically towards Obama. It seems that the Russian attitude towards the US is cooling down. In May, only 36% of the respondents expressed a generally positive attitude, compared to 50% who expressed a generally negative attitude. Interestingly, however, when asked about their attitudes towards “Americans”, 68% expressed positive attitudes compared to only 22% who expressed negative attitudes. In the graph below you can see an index of Russian attitudes towards the US (not sure how it is calculated, but the general trend is consistent with the rest of the data).

Index of attitudes towards USA

Russian Attitudes towrds US

(Source: Levada Center)

Similar trends can be found in a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM). There, prior to the visit, 62% of the respondents viewed the global role of the US as negative, and only 12% viewed is as positive. Also, 64% of the respondents viewed the US as an unfriendly to Russia country and only 18% viewed it as friendly.

Consistent with the attitudes towards the US, Levada data suggests that most Russians (65%) view the US-Russian relations as normal or “cool”. Majority (57%) of the respondents did not think that Obama replacing George W. Bush as the president of the US changed anything in the US-Russia relations, but 28% believed it would have a positive meeting. Also, 42% of the respondents expressed optimism that the meeting between Putin and Medvedev will have a positive impact on the US-Russia relations, while 39% thought it would make no difference. At the same time, according to FOM survey 24% of the respondents reported a positive attitude towards Obama, as opposed to 9% who reported a negative attitude (54% did not have any opinion).

How will the relationships between Russia and USA change following the June meeting between the two presidents.

Russian Opinion about the prospects of the meeting

(Source: Eurasian Home)

Some post-visit data provided by FOM suggests that Obama’s visit actually had positive impact on the Russian attitudes towards the US. To start with, 40% of the respondents viewed the results of the meeting as important (as opposed to 18% who thought the results were insignificant). Prior to the visit, only 18% of Russians viewed the US as a friendly to Russia, after the visit this percentage went up to 31%. Also, the percentage of those who view the global role of the US as positive went from 12% to 23%.

It is really interesting to see that despite the very limited media attention, Obama’s visit was the main media event of the week for the Russian people. 19% of the respondents viewed Obama’s visit as the most important event covered in the media during that week, placing it in the first place. This is almost twice as much as the percentage of people who expressed the same opinion about the G8 summit in Italy (10%) and Michael Jackson’s death (6%) – the other leading topics of that week. For comparison, during the previous week, Michael Jackson’s death was the leading media event, but with only 8% of the respondents indicating it as such. Yet, we should take these numbers in context, as 53% could not identify a leading media event of the week at all.

“During the last week, what event reported in the media drew most of your attention or was the most interesting?” (open question)

Russian Public Opinion July15

(Source: FOM)

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Russian Human Rights Activist Found Dead

Photo: AP

The Telegraph is reporting that Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist with the famous Russian human rights group Memorial, was found dead on Wednesday after suffering a ‘violent death.’ She was found in Ingushetia after being kidnapped earlier in Chechnya. Estemirova had covered abuses in Chechnya and openly criticized the Moscow installed leader, Ramzan Kadirov. The war in general is a topic that is largely off limits for Russian mainstream media.

The group she worked for, Memorial, is highly regarded in rights circles and was formed in the last days of the Soviet Union to investigate political repression under Stalin. Last year, the government raided their offices and confiscated the archives the group had compiled for decades about atrocities carried out under Stalin.

Estemirova was a close friend and colleague of Anna Politovskaya, the Novaya Gazeta journalist who was killed, most believe, for her critical coverage of the Chechen war. Estemirova traveled frequently with Politovskaya in Chechnya and won an award named after Politovskaya for investigative journalism.

Blogger Robert Amsterdam’s early reaction:

Her sudden kidnapping and murder is a most vile act, one that is almost unspeakable in its hideous brutality. Yet it is also a murder that we should not consider in isolation. There is a long history of tolerated attacks against journalists and human rights activists, and a climate for impunity and rule of law that holds no one accountable for this kind of crime. The message is clear and not undesirable for some elements of the government: those of courage who challenge the status quo may find themselves paying a high price.

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Russia Labeled “Partly Free” in 2009 “Freedom on the Net” Report

By Karina Alexanyan

Freedom House recently released a report examining emerging tactics of government control of digital media, with a focus on 15 countries around the world, including Russia. The report, “Freedom on the Net”, concludes that increasing digital media access and use worldwide is accompanied by more systematic and sophisticated methods of control.

The countries examined were Russia, China, Iran, Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, Estonia, Georgia, India, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa, Tunisia, Turkey and the UK.

All Images: Freedom On the Net

The key positive findings of the report suggest that poverty is not necessarily a barrier to new media freedom, that civic activism is growing around the world and that, in many cases, internet freedom exceeds press freedom. On a negative note, there is a continued lack of transparency and accountability, growing legal threats and technical attacks, and an increase in forms of censorship.

The report is organized around a Freedom on the Net index, which scores each country on a scale of 1-100, based on three main categories – Obstacles to Access (governmental, legal, infrastructural & economic), Limits to Content (various forms of censorship and content manipulation, diversity of online news media, and usage of digital media for activism) and Violations of User Rights (legal protections and restrictions, privacy violations and various legal and physical repercussions for online activity).

Based on these parameters, Russia is labeled “Partly Free” with a total score of 51. Specifically, Russia’s scores are:
Obstacles to Access – 11 out of 25
Limits to Content – 17 out of 35
Violations of User Rights – 23 out of 40


The Russia section of the report begins by positioning the internet in Russia against the elimination of independent television channels in 2000-01 and the tightening of press regulations, labeling it “the last relatively uncensored platform for public debate and the expression of political opinions”.

First bar: Internet; Second Bar: Traditional Media
Yellow=Partly Free; Purple=Not Free

At the same time, the report points out that “many Russians view the internet as a proper sphere for governmental control.” According to a Levada-Center poll taken in December 2006, almost half the population would either “absolutely agree” or “rather agree” with the statement “It’s time to bring order to the internet.”

The report concludes that, while there is little overt technical blocking or filtering in Russia, the legal environment has become more threatening, and there are increasing cases of sophisticated “soft censorship” (described in more detail below) and a rising number of attacks or threats to internet activists and bloggers. Russia joins other “Partly Free” countries like Egypt and Malaysia as a case where “government encouraged improvements in access to ICTs and relatively little censorship are offset by harsh legal environments, state monitoring and a rise in criminal prosecutions.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Russia Blocks Popular History Web Site

In a rare case of Internet filtering in Russia, the popular history Web site has been blocked for publishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf. According to the site’s founder, Vyacheslav Rumyantsev, the site was shut done last week by the site’s ISP, Agava, after a warning from St. Petersburg’s local Ministry of Interior ‘K’ squad, which enforces violations of Russian laws on the Internet.

Similar to what the OpenNet Initiative has seen in a number of other countries, the site was blocked because it violated Russian laws on anti-extremism (Article 280 of the Criminal Code).

In Russia, it appears that ISPs are responsible for violations of the law by their users. The Moscow Times describes how it’s done:

A spokesman for St. Petersburg police, Vyacheslav Stepchenko, said Friday that the site was closed down after the police sent a letter to provider Agava. He said that the law calls for the distributor of information to be warned first, and a criminal case will be opened only if the warning is ignored.

The law applies to the provider, not to the author of a web site, he said. “According to Russian law, responsibility for distribution lies with the owner of the resource, the owner of the hosting.”

The police department sends about 20 warning letters every month, he said.

Two mirror sites are up, with Mein Kampf removed.

carmenOver the weekend, Russian censors also cut part of a South Park episode to edit out a clip that makes fun of Prime Minister Putin. The section that was cut is available at the New Yorks Times Arts Beat Blog. It’s not clear who did the actual cutting. Last year, prosecutors also warned Russian cable channel 2×2, which airs South Park in Russia, that an episode of the show (Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics) could be seen as promoting hatred between religions. A Moscow court later canceled that warning.

UPDATE: The Moscow Times later reported that the Web site’s creator actually thinks that his site was shut down because of criticism of St. Petersburg mayor and Putin loyalist Valentina Matviyenko, and may have had nothing to do with Mein Kamph. The Moscow Times writes:

Rumyantsev said Tuesday that he suspected that the real reason for the closure last week was an article critical of Matviyenko that was posted on the site’s magazine section on June 15, four days before the police warning.

“It was a very quick reaction,” he said. “‘Mein Kamp’ was on the site for two years, and no one lifted a finger.”

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