By Carl Schreck
With reporting by the
Volga Desk of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir ServiceProduced by Carlos Coelho
* An overwhelming majority of the international community has not recognized Crimea as part of Russia.
Network Of Civilian
Pro-Kremlin lawmakers have drafted a bill that would tighten coordination between authorities and volunteer cyber-snoops who report allegedly suspicious online content. But an analysis by RFE/RL found that such volunteer groups are already coordinating with authorities in at least 27 Russian regions -- even without federal regulation in place.
Sakha Republic: The region’s administration said in May 2017 that cyberpatrol units had been created under the auspices of regional ministries and agencies, though the scope of their work is unclear. At a seminar held by the region’s civil-society ministry, a speaker from the ruling United Party’s youth wing, which is fanatically loyal to the Kremlin, delivered a presentation on “ferreting out illegal content on the Internet,” regional authorities said.
Novosibirsk Oblast: Regional university and college students were set to begin working as cyberpatrol monitors in September 2018 after undergoing training on “hate speech” and bullying, the region’s acting education minister, Sergei Fedorchuk, said in June. The volunteers would scan social-media networks and “other Internet resources popular among young people,” the regional administration said. The status of the initiative was not immediately clear.
Kemerovo Oblast: A cyberpatrol consisting of law enforcement officers, civic groups, and volunteers was launched in the region, the Kemerovo government’s child-rights ombudsman said in March 2017. Vyacheslav Petrov, a senior regional lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party, said in October that the initiative is a joint effort by the regional Interior Ministry’s oversight council and the Kemerovo government’s education department.
Chukotka Autonomous District: A municipal government website says Chukotka’s governor issued an order in November 2017 “on the organization of cyberpatrol activities” in the region with the goal of “countering the spread of illegal materials and information on the Internet.” The movement in the region is led by Pyotr Chyornenky, secretary of the region’s antiterrorism commission, according to an official statement in May. The statement said Chyornenky informed the committee about the monitors’ work in the region, but it provided no details.
Novgorod Oblast: Regional prosecutors said in May that there were 12 cyberpatrol monitors operating in the region -- all law students at Novgorod State University. The monitors focus on “extremism, drugs, child pornography, and other illegal content,” a news outlet owned by the regional government reported. In September 2017, local media reported that budgetary funds would be used for financial rewards to volunteers.
Astrakhan Oblast: The regional youth-affairs agency launched a cyberpatrol initiative in 2017, drawing volunteers from Astrakhan State University, according to the governor’s office. A senior regional Interior Ministry official said in August that since the beginning of the year, the project’s monitors had reported 67 incidents to the federal media watchdog over content “recognized by courts as extremist.” “They were entered into to the federal list [of extremist materials], and a decision was made to limit access to these sites,” the official said.
Voronezh Oblast: The Voronezh State Technical University in October announced it had created a cyberpatrol group aimed at combatting “destructive” online content. The goal of the project is to “increase the informational safety of Voronezh Region residents through the monitoring and countering of destructive content disseminated in online groups that enjoy popularity among regional Internet users,” the university said. There are currently 17 members of the group and 55 candidates for membership, according to the statement.
Vologda Oblast: The regional Interior Ministry said in July that a cyberpatrol group had been launched, and that its activists aren’t only concerned about virtual content. “This group consists of concerned Vologda residents who are upset about advertisements of psychoactive substances on fences and buildings, as well as issues of Internet safety,” the ministry said. A local news report said the activists “find and destroy” signs advertising drugs in Vologda.
Volgograd Oblast: A cyberpatrol branch was established in December 2016 under the auspices of Volgograd State University and in coordination with the Safe Internet League. Yelena Yevdokimova, regional head of the group, said in August that it was her job to decide which links flagged by volunteers should be relayed to authorities. A December 2017 local news report said the cyberpatrol group in the Volgograd region had passed on more than 200 links with “suspicious” content to police and prosecutors.
Vladimir Oblast: A cyberpatrol project has operated in the region since 2015 in coordination with the regional government’s committee on youth politics. The primary focus, according to officials, is cracking down on content related to illegal drugs. The deputy governor said in April 2017 that the project’s cyber-monitors had flagged around 9,000 instances of online content allegedly promoting narcotics and reported the cases to the federal media watchdog.
Tyumen Oblast: The regional government launched a cyberpatrol project in September 2017. Online monitors in 2017 provided law enforcement authorities and the federal media watchdog with 537 links to “resources with dangerous information,” regional authorities said. Regional anti-narcotics police in July met with cyberpatrol volunteers and discussed “how to find detrimental pages on popular social networks,” the regional Interior Ministry said. “Attention was also devoted to the legal consequences of posting images of narcotics and psychotropic substances on web pages, even in the form of a cannabis leaf,” it said.
Tver Oblast: The Safe Internet League set up cyberpatrol operations in Tver in 2016 under the leadership of Grigory Pashchenko, currently the head of the group’s nationwide Internet-monitoring efforts. He said the region’s monitors root out extremist materials, hate speech, calls for terrorism, and the sale of illegal drugs. He claimed authorities launched a criminal case after his activists reported that a social-media group was allegedly recruiting for Islamic State extremists. The regional government said in 2016 that it had helped secure a 700-square-meter space for cyberpatrol activists.
Tula Oblast: The regional government has actively backed a cyberpatrol initiative launched in 2016. In October 2017, the project’s leader said there were 52 volunteer monitors in the group. In April, Governor Aleksei Dyumin awarded two student cyberpatrol volunteers with gift watches for their efforts. One of the students said monitors target materials blacklisted as “extremist” by the Russian Justice Ministry. That blacklist includes an image retouched to show Putin’s face in full makeup that the ministry says “hints at the supposed nonstandard sexual orientation of the president.”
Sverdlovsk Oblast: The regional government has coordinated with an organization called Sila Urala (“Strength Of The Urals”) on an initiative in which activists “monitor the Internet for banned materials that are terroristic and extremist in nature.” In February, the governor’s office said there were 150 volunteers already signed up. In August, a local journalist went undercover to volunteer with the group and described a haphazard system for weeding out allegedly dangerous content, which she said was reviewed by a single coordinator responsible for determining whether specific material warranted official action.
Stavropol Krai: The regional government announced a cyberpatrol initiative in 2016, saying participants would “actively fight dangerous content” and “help law enforcement authorities ferret out and bring to justice individuals who commit crimes in the virtual sphere.” The group is part of the Safe Internet League and works with a regional government youth center. The administration of the regional capital, Stavropol, announced in October 2017 that it had facilitated talks on the creation of a cyberpatrol group. It said in May that the group had 20 participants.
Primorsky Krai: A cyberpatrol initiative was launched with the support of the regional government, with a first meeting of monitors held in July. In October, regional authorities said that during a three-month period, monitors had found “1,000 destructive materials,” more than 200 of which were “banned under Russian law.” The Vladivostok legislature said that in addition to drug-related content and child pornography, the monitors had flagged materials “promoting homosexuality” to minors. In 2013, Russia enacted a law prohibiting the "promotion of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors that was denounced internationally as discriminatory.
Kursk Oblast: A cyberpatrol initiative in the region says it began operating in 2014, and it has coordinated with the regional government and the ruling United Russia party. Its stated focus is countering the spread of illegal drugs. The leader of the initiative, Kirill Burykh, has served as the regional head of the ruling United Russia party’s youth wing, Molodaya Gvardia (Young Guard), which in April vowed to help authorities counter opposition street protesters.
Kurgan Oblast: Regional police said in May that a cyberpatrol team consisting of 15 people -- including students from Kurgan State University -- was monitoring the Russian social-networking site VKontakte. The activists reportedly found 88 users they deemed to be suicide risks, and they also comb the site for “illegal” content. The cyberpatrol project was launched in 2016 to monitor young people involved in suicide-themed online groups, authorities say. First Deputy Governor Viktor Sukhnev said in July that a “pilot” cyberpatrol program was launched in May to “root out extremist content in social-media networks.”
Krasnoyarsk Krai: Regional authorities in June launched a cyberpatrol initiative encouraging citizens to submit links to websites featuring “banned information.” The program, which received 300,000 rubles in government funding, has reportedly resulted in the closure of more than two dozen websites. Announcing the initiative in a June report, a news anchor for a television station owned by the regional government said: “Any Internet user can -- and in my opinion, should -- become a participant.”
Kostroma Oblast: Cyberpatrol activists began operating in the region in 2016, according to officials and media reports. A regional youth affairs official said in October 2017 that there were 15 student volunteers scanning social media for “signs of socially negative manifestations among youth,” including “terrorism, alcohol use, drugs, and involvement in certain groups.” Local volunteers reportedly provided the federal media watchdog with more than 400 links featuring allegedly illegal content in 2018. The activists were praised by Kostroma Governor Sergei Sitnikov.
Komi Republic: The regional education ministry says the formation of a cyberpatrol movement in the republic began in 2017. The current scope of the initiative remains unclear. In June, Syktyvkar State University said its students were recruiting cyberpatrol volunteers. An activist with the ruling United Russia party’s youth wing said she participated in a July 17 regional education ministry meeting on the cyberpatrol movement. The activist said she discussed the youth group’s MediaGuard initiative. That project has called on authorities to close a prominent social-network support group for LGBT youth.
Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region: As of October, there were around 950 volunteers monitoring online content in the region, including at 151 “general education institutions,” according to regional authorities and news reports. Since the beginning of the year, they had found nearly 800 sites with “antisocial information,” 330 of which had already been closed, authorities say. Governor Natalya Komarova said in March 2017 that 50 members of the region’s youth parliament were working as part of “municipal cyberpatrol” groups in order to counter “Internet threats.”
Daghestan: In Daghestan, a predominantly Muslim region in Russia’s south that is plagued by an Islamic insurgency stemming from the post-Soviet separatist wars in neighboring Chechnya, authorities this year called on volunteers to report online materials promoting “terrorism and extremism.” On a dedicated site for reporting such content, authorities promised a new iPhone as a prize for the “most active” user of the hotline.
Crimea: The municipal head in Yalta, a city in the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea* that Russia seized and annexed in 2014, issued a decree in May outlining the official establishment of web-monitoring groups to fight “the spread of illegal information on the Internet” and information “capable of harming the physical and moral health of children and young people.” The municipal education department held its first meeting of cyberpatrol coordinators on October 18.
Chuvash Republic: The government of the regional capital, Cheboksary, announced in July that it was recruiting volunteers for a cyberpatrol to fight “illegal information.” One volunteer told RFE/RL that the operation is headquartered at a local police precinct. An official in the police department that does background checks on volunteers said supporters of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny could not join because “they are accessories to extremist activities.” Regional prosecutors said in October that a cyberpatrol project had been launched in another of the region’s cities, Novocheboksarsk.
Belgorod Oblast: Belgorod Governor Yevgeny Savchenko in 2017 issued a decree codifying for the first time in Russia the cyberpatrol concept and placing these “volunteer” online informants under the control of the regional government. Regional authorities told RFE/RL last year that the more than 400 activists there focused on halting the spread of extremist materials, information encouraging suicide and drug use, child pornography, and gambling. One volunteer in the region said he checks the hashtags #революция (“revolution”) and #долойвласть (“down with the government) every day.
Altai Krai: Monitors from the Safe Internet League have been operating in the region since 2016, in coordination with Altai State University. In August, the acting governor approved a 100,000-ruble grant for a cyberpatrol project. One such group was also formed in November 2017 in the regional capital, Barnaul. The region has been at the center of a nationwide debate over criminalized web content this year after residents were charged with hate speech over satirical memes, including one likening Jesus to the Game of Thrones character Jon Snow.
Murmansk Oblast: Regional police in May presented a project called “Arctic Cyberpatrol” to students at Murmansk Arctic State University. The regional Interior Ministry said it is aimed at curtailing content promoting drugs, suicide, extremism, child pornography, and “the luring of young people into illegal activities.” The regional education and interior ministries, as well as the regional branch of the federal media watchdog, endorsed the initiative in September, though no state funding was stipulated. The project envisions quarterly raids by volunteers on “public places with open access to the Internet.”
BY Carl Schreck | With reporting by the Volga Desk of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service
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Pro-Kremlin lawmakers have drafted a bill that would tighten coordination between Russian authorities and volunteer cyber-informants who report allegedly illegal content to authorities.
The proposed bill, which has yet to be submitted to parliament, comes amid mounting public pushback in Russia over prosecutions for social-media posts -- including satirical memes lampooning religion -- that authorities deem extremist or hate speech.
The authors of the draft bill on these civilian cyberpatrols are from the ruling United Russia party. They say it would help stem hate speech, “the promotion of war,” and other “illegal” content, as well as “systematize such civic work.”
But an analysis by RFE/RL has found that such groups are already coordinating with authorities or operating under the umbrella of state educational institutions in more than 20 Russian regions. (Scroll over the map to see examples of this collaboration across the country.)
The most prominent cyberpatrol project in Russia was launched by the formally independent Safe Internet League, whose tycoon backer, Konstantin Malofeyev, has urged greater Internet censorship in Russia. The group claims its volunteers operate in 36 regions.
Opposition activists warn that state-sanctioned online “snitches” can be used to stymie legitimate dissent. In Cheboksary, capital of the Chuvash Republic, it appears supporters of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny are not welcome in a city-backed cyberpatrol project.
A police official who said her department conducts background checks on volunteers told RFE/RL's Volga Desk that members of Navalny’s team would not pass muster.
“They are accessories to extremist activities, of course we won’t hire them,” the official, who did not give her name, said.