Sunday, January 30, 2005

Russia's Internet Self-Discipline

Reports are filtering through that there is a push for self-censorship on the "Russian net". This Pravda article quotes the Governor of Moscow saying that the "Internet is seriously ill", and that people have to think twice before putting something on the internet. A view that is supported by the deputy head of the federal agency for press and mass communications, who wraps a proposal for a unified content filtering program in semi-benign wordings: "As far as content filtering of the Internet is concerned, State's politics intends to offer the public its services to protect them against harmful and unlawful content."

Self-censorship and (state induced) filtering are not one and the same, though they interact and the latter can strengthen the former. Filtering entails observation and control based on that observation. Under pressure of observation, or the mere suspicion that one's observed, citizens may correct their deviant views and internalize generally accepted norms. This conformation to the rules of public morality is the form of self-discipline Michel Foucault has written extensively about in his seminal work Discipline and Punish (1975). Partly based on the panoptic theories of Jeremy Bentham, author of Constitutional Code, Foucault's societal theory of (self-)discipline is echoed in the self-censorship, which is actually taking place in Russia. The creators of the literary website Stikhi.Ru released a document, which states that
"It is not allowed to publish literary works and forum postings on the Web-resources of Russian National Literary Web concerning the following subjects: special military operations of Russian troops in Chechnya (since 1991 up until 2004), terrorist acts against citizens of the Russian Federation as well as resistance of separate groups of Russian citizens in regards to various laws of the Russian Federation and president's decrees."
The vagueness of this last "rule of conduct" is staggering: resistance, separate groups, various laws, president's decrees. And not to forget that this self-inflicted prohibition covers works of fiction. Explaining why the site has decided to (self-)censor literary works, one of its creators says, still in the Pravda article:
"Lately, we've been hearing about the importance of regulating the Internet from states' authorities and politicians alike. We simply wanted to forestall the situation in order to avoid running into problems in future. Clearly, we will be unable to scan and filter the entire content momentarily. That is why the decision has been reached to take action first before the government does, and from a model within our site for now." [corrected typos in original]
Consider the last sentence: "a model within our site". Internalized discipline based on possible external punishment (by the state). The call of politicians (and others) for discipline towards publishing on the internet, and the (threat of technical) enforcement thereof through filtering provides, as Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish:
"a functional mechanism that [improves] the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come."
Has that society come for the Russian net and the nets connected to it?

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