Vienna, October 17 – Growth in the number of Russians going online has slowed overall this year and may even have been reversed in some places, developments that casts doubt on the hopes of some that the relatively free Internet could serve to counterbalance the Kremlin’s increasingly tight control over other media outlets.
Yefim Galitskiy, a specialist at the Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow, said yesterday that his organization’s regular surveys since 2002 about Russian Internet use had documented rapid rises until this summer, when the rate of growth slowed or even stopped altogether (http://www.dp.ru/msk/news/adveritsing/2007/10/15/241725/print/).
And he predicted on the basis of his company’s latest findings that the total number of Russians using the Internet would top out at about one-third of the population, up from approximately a quarter now, far fewer than other experts have suggested, albeit on the basis of more limited data sets.
Ruslan Tagiyev, who studies the Internet for TNS Gallup Media, said that he believes that ever more Russians will turn to the Internet until perhaps 75 percent of them go on line – although he acknowledged that this projection was based only on findings from the city of Moscow and not the provinces, places he has yet studied.
That Internet connectivity is less in Russia’s regions than it is in the capital is common ground, of course, but a new study of how the Internet is used in the various regions and republics of the Southern Federal District (FD) shows just how much further behind the center all of them are – and why they may not catch up.
That FD as a whole ranks second from the bottom of all federal districts in terms of Internet use. (Only the Far Eastern FD is lower.) Although it contains 15 percent of the country’s population, the Southern FD has only three percent of the Internet domains and 4.9 percent of the IP addresses.
But even within it, there are significant variations among the constituent federal subjects in the Southern FD, journalist Nikita Mendkovich reports in an article posted earlier this week on the Regions of Russia website, differences that he argues justify classifying them in three groups (http://www.regrus.info/anounces/3/110.html).
Those living in the first of these groups, which includes Rostov oblast, Volgograd oblast and Krasnodar kray, currently have more than 80 percent of the registered domain names in the Southern FD and also lead the region with 614,000 IP addresses, despite the fact that they form a far smaller fraction of the Southern FD’s total population.
The second group, whose constituent parts each have from 10,000 to 100,000 addresses, is made up of the populations of Stavropol kray, North Osetia, Astrakhan oblast, Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachai-Cherkessia. That figure, about six percent of the Southern FD total, is also dramatically less than proportionate.
And the third group, which includes Adygeia, Kalmykia, Ingushetia and Chechnya, Mendkovich says, is the least well served by the Internet. None of these non-Russian republics have more than 10,000 IP addresses, and most of them have fewer than that.
Moreover -- and this is the more significant point here -- those living in the predominantly ethnic Russian regions are continuing to experience dramatic growth in the number of users because their areas have the communications infrastructure and political interest to promote it.
In Rostov oblast, for example, there are now 56 Internet teleconferencing centers, one at the center and one in each of the 55 municipalities, something that not only allows the authorities to speak with one another but also helps condition them to using the Internet more generally.
But the situation in most of the non-Russian areas is very different. Far fewer people have gone online, and both geography and violence have meant that neither the governments nor private investors are willing to put in the kind of resources needed to jump start interest in the World Wide Web.
As a result, Mendkovich concludes, there is not yet the critical mass in most of them needed for the Internet to take off, and as a result, their populations remain mired in a pre-Internet communications world, one that over the last decade has become less and less useful as a source of balanced and accurate information.
That the other channels of the Russian media are now likely to be less useful to those who consume them was underlined this week by the extraordinarily low ranking Reporters without Borders (RWB) gave to Russia in its annual report on media freedom around the world (http://www.ann.ru, October 17).
According to RWB, Russia now ranks 144th out of the 169 countries the media watchdog group evaluated, just below Yemen (143) and just above Tunisia (145), Rwanda (147) and Saudi Arabia (148), and below most of the other post-Soviet states, including, for example, Estonia (3), Ukraine (92), Tajikistan (115) and Azerbaijan (139).
Reacting to these figures, Anatoliy Baranov, a Moscow commentator who specializes on Russian media policies, suggested that the Russian Federation not only fully deserved this low ranking but also is likely to find itself even lower down next year (http://forum.msk.ru/print.html?id=394042).
He argues that Russian television has never been fully independent, that newspapers and journals are ever less so, and that the Internet, the new media in which so many have placed so much hope, is now at risk of being silenced or absorbed by the authorities as well. His remarks on the last point are especially worthy of note.
“Internet media do represent the real zone of relative freedom in Russia, but even there,” he points out, the authorities are working to take them “under control.” But most of the “free” sites attract only a few hundred visitors a day, too small a number to “set the weather” for the Internet or affect that of the Russian media as a whole.
Indeed, he continues, “one can count on one’s fingers” the sites that are both entirely independent of the regime and attract large number of visitors. Some operators hope to survive by registering with IP providers abroad, but that may not be enough. And “six months from now,” these islands of “relative” freedom may disappear as well.