Earlier in the Digital Eurasia:
The down of digital politics
The telecom boom: Transforming the post-soviet world
The former Soviet Union is undergoing a phase of rapid informatization, largely fuelled by rising mobile Internet access, growing affluence, and the development of more local resources across the region. As a result of these trends, a generation of netizens, most of them young, educated, and urban, are changing the face of the region, empowered by disruptive technologies. As Internet penetration continues to rise, citizens are gaining unprecedented access to new sources of income, information, communication, and networking; the mobile revolution is further accelerating this development.
Internet uptake in Eurasia is greater than in the developing world, and is increasing rapidly. From 2010-2013, the number of Internet users across the CIS grew at a rate of 59%, reaching an average of 44.17%. The high cost of fixed-line Internet access, although it has been falling annually, remains a considerable obstacle. On the other hand, mobile access is comparatively inexpensive, and subscriptions have skyrocketed across the region in recent years; Internet cafes are also popular points of access to cyberspace. Online, netizens are turning to local or Russian-language social media, such as VK and Odnoklassniki, in addition to global giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Social media have played a significant role in enabling offline protest movements across the region, most recently in 2011-12 in Russia and 2013-14 in Ukraine.
The region’s dominant power, Russia, plays a lead role in both formal developments and informal trends in telecommunications and cyberspace. Russian-language platforms are popular throughout Eurasia, serving as a regional hub for social media. Russia ICT companies are also highly influential, as they are major players in every market of the former Soviet Union. Russia serves as the legislative leader in the region as well: Russian laws are often copied by nearby states. This includes the Russian-developed System for Operative and Investigative Activities, or SORM, the legal framework and technical system used for communications interception by law enforcement agencies.
Russia is also leading a push to shift the governance of the Internet away from non-governmental bodies to individual states. This will allow authorities greater control over content within state boundaries such as terrorist propaganda; however, it will also result in a fracturing of the Internet, transforming the global digital commons into a multitude of nationally controlled spaces. This increased territorialization of the Internet could result in protectionist measures and the creation of a two-tiered Internet, in which access to sites can be limited by economic factors, as seen in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Meanwhile, authoritarian states throughout the region are implementing ever more sophisticated Internet controls to stamp out online dissent. Although some countries, such as Uzbekistan, still engage in widespread technical blocking of politically inconvenient sites, more countries are adopting legal measures to deny access to information; others have shifted their focus away from denying access and are striving instead to compete with online dissent through counter-information campaigns. Whatever strategy is in play, it is clear that cyberspace has become a critical conflict zone in which opposition leaders and governments alike seek to exert power and influence in and through cyberspace.
Of course, dissent is not the only domestic concern: cybercrime is rife across Eurasia. In fact, Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan have emerged as some of the world’s biggest hubs of illegal online activity. The prevalent types of cybercrimes vary greatly from country to country, depending on the ICT development as well as the socio-economic and political context of each nation, but in all cases, the official response to the proliferation of cybercrime is feeble.
Read part III: Regional powerhouse drives the digital age