You may not have noticed, but since late last month, the world supply of Viagra ads and other e-mail spam has dropped by an estimated one-fifth. With 200 billion spam messages in circulation each day, there is still plenty to go around. But police officials in Russia, a major spam exporter, say they are trying to do their part to stem the flow. On Tuesday, police officials here announced a criminal investigation of a suspected spam kingpin, Igor A. Gusev. They said he had probably fled the country. Moscow police authorities said Mr. Gusev, 31, was a central figure in the operations of SpamIt.com, which paid spammers to promote online pharmacies, sometimes quite lewdly. SpamIt.com suddenly stopped operating on Sept. 27. With less financial incentive to send their junk mail, spammers curtailed their activity by an estimated 50 billion messages a day. Mr. Gusev and SpamIt.com have been widely known in computer security circles, and he had lived openly in Moscow. Spamhaus, an international nonprofit that monitors global spam, listed the SpamIt.com organization as the world’s single largest sponsor of spam
Six Russian journalism students released a rival calendar after their colleagues’ scantily clad version in honour of Vladimir Putin. Twelve scantily clad women oozing praise for Vladimir Putin versus six stern-looking female students demanding human rights – who will win Russia’s battle of the calendars? A day after 12 journalism students at Russia’s most prestigious university released a racy calendar in honour of Putin’s 58th birthday, six of their colleagues hit back with their own version, pointing to the murders and curbs on freedom under Putin. “Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?” asks Yekaterina Ulianova, posing, like all the young women, in a sombre black outfit with yellow tape sealing her mouth shut. Politkovskaya, a journalist who was one of the Kremlin’s toughest critics, was shot dead on Putin’s birthday four years ago today. The students in both calendars study at Moscow State University’s journalism faculty, which has produced some of the country’s finest journalists, including Politkovskaya. Some 50,000 copies of the first calendar have been printed, and are for sale for RUVB 259 at Moscow branches of French supermarket chain Auchan. The opposition calendar, for now, is only available online.
Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia will double their Internet users to 1.2 billion by 2015, fueling growth at media companies and phone carriers, according to Boston Consulting Group. By then, the countries will have three times the Internet users of the United States and Japan combined, up from about two times at the end of 2009, the consulting firm said in a report released last week. Personal computers will double in the five countries to more than 920 million, and mobile phones with Internet access will aid growth, according to the report. As consumers gain more access to the Net, they’ll spend more time online, providing a boon to entertainment providers, the report said. Boston Consulting added Indonesia to the group because of its 240 million population and its proportion of mobile-phone users, which at 66 percent is higher than China and India, said David Michael, the report’s lead author. Indonesia’s wireless subscriptions will top 100 percent of the population by 2015, meaning some users will have multiple devices, according to Boston Consulting. Twenty percent of China’s population owns a personal computer, and tens of millions get online at Internet cafes, giving China 384 million Internet users at the end of last year, almost triple the total in 2006, the report said. In India, only 7 percent of the population was using the Internet at the end of 2009, the lowest of the five countries in the report. Indian users spend half an hour online a day, and productivity functions such as e-mail and job-hunting are their most popular activities. That will change as media companies take advantage of the growth in users, which will reach 19 percent by 2015, Michael said. Internet users in Brazil and Russia will surge by 2015 to 74 percent and 55 percent of the population from about one-third last year, according to the report.
Online media outlets can only be shut down for extremist comments left on their forums if they fail to comply with official requests to delete the comments, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, RIA-Novosti reported. User posts on forums without moderation are to be treated the same way as live speeches on radio or television, for which the broadcasters cannot be held responsible, said Supreme Court deputy chief justice Vasily Nechayev. The ruling only covers forums of web sites that are registered as media outlets. Federal anti-extremist legislation allows courts to close media outlets that receive two warnings for extremist content, which includes promoting hatred based on ethnicity, social status and profession, as well as calling for the violent overthrow of the government. Promoting extremism is punishable by up to three years in prison and up to five years if done through the mass media. Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, authorities had the option of shutting down online media outlets for comments on their forums, even if the comments were not endorsed by the editors.
Russia, unhappy with its image abroad, has taken a fresh public relations approach to present a better view of itself and attract foreign investment.
One example is the Russian National Exhibition in Paris, organised by Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade and being opened by the country’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It’s another attempt by Moscow to tell what it sees as the real story, different from what some Russian commentators call an excessively negative coverage of Russia in Western media. In recent years, Russia has launched international English and Arabic news channels, hosted international economic forums and discussion clubs, started funding supplements in foreign newspapers and even hired some Western PR companies.
Large international PR agency Ketchum was hired to help Russia “shift global views” of the country prior to and during the 2006 G8 summit. It said afterwards that the main aim had been “to ensure that Russia’s openness, accessibility and transparency were widely communicated to participants and observers of the summit and to the media”. The Kremlin’s greater openness during that summit, and its dignified response to the recent tragedy of the Polish presidential plane crash, certainly sent positive signals abroad.
But experts agree that it will require much more to change Russia’s image than a number of PR moves, no matter how good and expensive. “It takes generations for a country’s international standing to change, and countries need a great deal of patience if they are serious about such things,” policy adviser Simon Anholt told the BBC.
Dmitry Gavra, Russian political expert and professor at the Saint Petersburg State University, believes that Russia’s image has been damaged by both historical “negative constants” and some recent developments. He highlights “image mistakes” made by Russian officials, a lack of institutional and structural reforms in the country and Russia’s recent attempts to return to the system of global competition in geopolitics, technology and economy as the new factors.
They have been combined with the usual perceptions of Russia as a country with an anti-Western attitude, always eager to expand and position itself as a missionary in dealings with its neighbours and the rest of the world. For example, gas rows with Ukraine and Belarus, seen by most Russians as purely economic disputes, were criticised by some Western opponents as Russia’s attempts to use its energy superpower status as a geopolitical weapon.
Mr Anholt says that one of the main problems for Russia is a very low number of “informal ambassadors” around the world, such as famous consumer brands or international media personalities that people like and associate with Russia. The country also does not have a big tourism profile. “Russia’s business and political figures usually seem to acquire their international profile for negative reasons,” says Mr Anholt. “The only international media stories about Russia generally relate to conflict or instability.”
Mr Gavra also points out that it is impossible to separate internal and external images of Russia. Bureaucracy, corruption, the huge gap in earnings between wealthy and poor Russians, the low prestige of state institutions, relations between the police and the people – all these factors create a negative image of the country, even among many Russians.
“Of those Russians who spend their holiday abroad, some do not even want to admit they are from Russia and try to speak foreign languages,” he says. In turn, Mr Anholt believes that Russia does not come over as being very well disposed to outsiders. “The truth may well be rather different, but perception, unfortunately, always trumps reality,” he says. Positive moves
Experts agree that only big changes in Russian policy and in its dealings with the rest of the world could gradually improve the country’s image. The question is, though, whether Moscow is ready to implement these long-term changes and will not abandon them if the internal situation changes.
The Kremlin’s rhetoric for most of the 2000s alerted many in the West, who considered it hawkish and unfriendly towards private business. But Mr Gavra believes that “for many Russian officials, those things are right which are effective”. It was effective back then to be seen as tough, he says, but the situation has changed. “We already see important changes in the areas which matter to Russia’s Western partners,” says Mr Gavra. They include the new anti-corruption drive, new ways of dealing with suspected corruption and the rise of the internet. This has brought about a kind of “electronic democracy”, in which entrepreneurs can do much of their business online, avoiding queues and not having to deal with corrupt bureaucrats.
“These things will be better for Russia’s image than 10 economic forums,” says Mr Gavra. As Mr Anholt puts it: “‘What can Russia say to make itself liked?’ is simply the wrong question. “The only meaningful question is: ‘What can Russia do to make itself relevant?'”
Internet domain names using Cyrillic characters may start working this week after the world governing body for Internet domain names officially delegates the .рф domain to Russia. Representatives of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, may officially assign the .рф domain suffix to Russia at the Internet Governance Forum, which begins on Thursday in Moscow, said Andrei Vorobyov, a spokesman for Ru-Center, a domain registrar. Once the .рф suffix, known as a top-level domain, is assigned, the Cyrillic domain names they have registered will become operational. ICANN in November approved the use of non-Latin characters in Internet domain names, clearing the way for domain names in Cyrillic and other national scripts. The first domain names using a non-Latin character set became operational last week, after web sites in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began using Arabic script in their web addresses.
Russia’s biggest business daily is to take to the air Monday when Kommersant FM radio starts broadcasting in the capital. The station will operate on the 93.6 frequency in an all-news format with a focus on business and financial information, spokeswoman Galina Boyanova said Friday. She said the station would benefit from synergy with the newspaper and referred all further questions to a news conference scheduled for Monday. The frequency was obtained by Kommersant’s publishing house in April 2007, but the ambitious plans to develop the business-orientated radio station stalled because of the economic crisis, national media reported. Kommersant, which has an official daily circulation of 101,739, was acquired by Kremlin-friendly businessman Alisher Usmanov in 2006 but has largely kept its critical stance vis-a-vis the government. Kommersant’s radio station faces a tough task to become profitable in the city’s overcrowded radio market, which is jammed with about 50 stations, analysts said.
Alexei Dymovsky, the former police major who was fired after his videos against corruption appeared on YouTube, was arrested in his hometown of Novorossiisk on Friday. A local court sanctioned the arrest on the grounds that Dymovsky had put pressure on an investigator, local human rights campaigner Vadim Karastelyov said. Dymovsky was dismissed from the police force after posting two online addresses last November in which he complained to Prime Minister Putin about rampant corruption in the police force. Last week, he was charged with fraud and abuse of office, and he faces up to six years in prison if convicted. In an audio recording taped just before Friday’s hearing, Dymovsky accused investigators of fabricating the reason for his arrest. In the message, posted on his web site, Dymovskiy.name, he explained that investigators unexpectedly told him Thursday that he should appear for a court hearing that would consider his arrest the next day
The heads of Russia’s leading media outlets on Wednesday sent an open letter to the interior minister demanding protection for journalists and society against police arbitrariness after a court fined a photographer for covering an anti-government rally. A Moscow court found RIA Novosti photo correspondent Andrei Stenin guilty of taking part in an unsanctioned protest in front of the presidential administration building in December and fined him RUB 500 (about USD 17). The state-run agency called the decision “unjust” in a statement earlier on Wednesday and confirmed the journalist had been assigned to cover the event. The ruling has stirred a wave of criticism in the Russian media community, with the chief editors of some 20 major newspapers, agencies, TV and radio stations signing the letter to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev. The letter said the journalistic community is alarmed the incident that may set a precedent for prosecuting journalists “while they perform their professional duty” in Russia
The Russian edition of Forbes has won the use of the domain name Forbes.ru and a record USD 300,000 in damages from a cybersquatter in a landmark court ruling, the magazine announced Friday. Forbes and its Russian publisher, Axel Springer Russia, sued Landmark VIP Services, which advertises travel packages on Forbes.ru, for the unauthorized use of the magazine’s trademark in its web address. The travel site was still online Sunday evening. The Moscow Arbitration Court awarded Forbes USD 300,000 in damages, the largest compensation payout to date in a Russian case of this kind. Cybersquatting litigation in Russia has often resulted in the awarding of nominal sums, and the Forbes case could mark a departure from that precedent. In 1999, U.S. camera giant Eastman Kodak sued a Russian firm that was using Kodak.ru in the first such high-profile case and won RUB 2,600 — about USD 100 at the time — in compensation after a two-year legal battle. Landmark VIP Services registered Forbes.ru in 2002 and for several years visitors to the page were greeted by an announcement that Forbes would soon be launching a web site, along with a link to the Russian company’s holiday catalogue.