Kremlin Mulling Unplugging Russia's Internet, Blaming West

On Monday, Putin will call a meeting to discuss restrictions on the last major forum for free expression in Russia.

Russia is mulling measures to protect its cyberspace from the "unpredictable" West, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman told AFP on Friday, as experts warned the Kremlin may be considering disconnecting the country from the global web.

The respected business daily Vedomosti, citing industry sources, said Putin will convene a meeting on Monday of the Security Council to discuss possible restrictions on Russian cyberspace, the last major forum for free expression in the country.

Vedomosti said authorities were contemplating measures, to be put in place by early next year, to unplug Russia from the global web in emergency situations such as major protests or military hostilities.

The Kremlin could try to justify such a clamp-down by whipping up fears that it's the West that wants to disconnect Russia from the web, said industry experts.

Analysts say similar measures have been introduced by countries such as Iran and Cuba, which developed national Internet limits to curb the spread of Western culture and ideas.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the Security Council meeting on Internet security would take place, but he declined to discuss details of the agenda.

Peskov said authorities have no plans to disconnect Russian cyberspace, but that they need measures to protect the country from the West.

"Taking into account the complete unpredictability of the United States and European Union, Russia is taking measures to ensure its own security," Peskov told AFP.

"Security measures for the Russian Internet are constantly discussed at various levels and at various ministries taking into account the unpredictability of our foreign partners."

Russia not 'disconnecting itself' Asked whether Russia was preparing measures that would allow officials to bar Russian access to the global Internet, Peskov said: "This is a question for other countries, first and foremost the United States. We are not talking about Russia disconnecting itself."

Russian communications minister Nikolai Nikiforov told Russian reporters late Friday that authorities were putting together measures in case "our respected partners suddenly decide to pull the plug on our Internet."

With mainstream media firmly under Kremlin control, social media and Internet news sites have become crucial outlets for independent reports, including on the alleged involvement of Russian troops in the Ukraine conflict.

While Putin enjoys popular support, with his approval ratings boosted by Russia's takeover of Crimea from Ukraine in March, the Kremlin is still wary about the possibility of mass unrest.

Russia's economy, now teetering on the verge of recession, is reeling from stringent Western sanctions imposed over Moscow's role in the Ukraine.

Russian authorities have already introduced tough curbs on cyberspace, including a law requiring Internet companies to store all personal data of Russian users at data centers in the country.

Putin has called the Internet a "CIA project" and warned Russians against using Google because, he said, all information "goes through servers that are in the (United) States, everything is monitored there".

There are some 70 million Internet users in Russia, about half of the population.

Earlier this year the founder of Russia's top social network, VKontakte, Pavel Durov, fled the country after selling his shares under pressure from the security services, saying Russia was "incompatible with Internet business."

'North Korean model'?

Authorities may face technical challenges in shutting the country off from the rest of the world because unlike its neighbor China, Russia is firmly integrated into the global web, experts said.

They laughed off Russian suggestions that it might be the West that would seek to disconnect Russia from the Internet.

"This threat is as surreal as an alien attack," Mikhail Gurevich, a media expert and head of venture fund 101StartUp, told AFP. He accused authorities of "aggressive isolationism."

Prominent Internet expert Anton Nosik added: "Russia's shift to the North Korean model of managing the Internet will have far-reaching consequences for the country's economy and public sentiment."

He called any possible plan to place Russian Internet under security service control a "mission impossible."

Internet ombudsman Dmitry Marinichev said although isolating Russian cyberspace was technically possible, it would strike a huge blow to business.

"All companies communicate among themselves through the global web," he told AFP. "Disconnection would be a path towards a serious degradation, this will threaten the very functioning of the national economy."

A girl watches Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Internet.

Nothing has changed the Web more than the rise of social networking sites. Before social networking, the World Wide Web was full of interesting information, but there was little opportunity to contribute or participate. Today, social networking sites are fulfilling the potential of the Web: connecting people across the globe. But why do they matter so much? "With social networks, we're able to visualize the connections between individuals, says Fred Stutzman, Ph.D. student and teaching fellow, School of Information and Library Science at UNC Chapel Hill. "Even if the value or magnitude of the connection is the same for everyone (and that doesn't mirror real life), knowing the connections between individuals helps us better understand them, who they are connected to, and how they are connected to us." If Stutzman is right, understanding the way these networking sites work will help us understand ourselves and our friends. So read on to discover the 10 social networking sites that you should know about today.

10. MySpace

MySpace isn't the oldest online social network, but it helped define them -- and it incorporates many different Web services into a comprehensive package. Every MySpace profile comes with the ability to post blogs, news items and status updates and create rich, detailed user profiles. Members can post and share pictures, videos and music, plus can create groups and invite other members to join. But what makes MySpace stand out from the crowd is the sweet sound of free marketing. For bands and unsigned performers, MySpace is a sort of virtual audition stage to debut new tracks, share information or arrange special shows for their fans. In late 2009, the news broke that MySpace would begin to use Facebook Connect, an API developed by the site's largest rival in the social community market. Could this mean MySpace will shift more toward being a content site for musicians than a social networking site?

9. Orkut

Orkut is an online social network owned by Google. Originally based in California, the site now calls Brazil home. While 17 percent of its traffic is from the United States, it never really took off in the U.S. But Brazilians adopted the site as their preferred online social network -- more than 50 percent of all traffic to Orkut comes from Brazil. According to the analytics firm comScore, more than 20 million Brazilians visited Orkut in September 2008, making it the most popular Web site in Brazil. In that same month, only 893,000 Brazilians visited MySpace. Why has Orkut become so popular in Brazil? One theory is that the site's name is easy for Portuguese speakers to pronounce, though they pronounce it "or-KOO-chee." Another is that there are no ads on Orkut pages. Orkut is also popular in India, which supplies another 17 percent of the site's traffic. While it may never gain a firm standing in the United States, it's still a success story.

8. 51.com

While many social networking sites strive to create global communities, others look to cater to very specific audiences. In the case of 51.com, the audience was a nation: China. In 2008, the site had 120 million members. In other words: More than half of the 210 million Chinese citizens with Internet access at that time had a member account on 51.com. According to comScore, China has passed the United States in overall number of users on the Internet but the percentage of Chinese citizens with Internet access is still very low. In the U.S., nearly 73 percent of the population uses the Internet. In China it's closer to 22 percent. Members of 51.com can create personalized profile pages, upload photos and write blog posts. The site has a reputation for pretty exceptional user engagement; most members visit the site multiple times each month. The site plans to launch a major game project, with an investment of more than 100 million yuan (about $14.6 million U.S.) would only enhance this engagement. Investors in 51.com include Intel Capital, Sequoia Capital China and Redpoint Ventures, the company that invested in another well-known social networking success: MySpace.com.

7. Friendster

Friendster was one of the first sites to introduce the concept of online social networking to the Web. Jonathan Abrams conceived of the site and launched it in 2002, just two years after the infamous dotcom crash. Abrams saw untapped potential on the World Wide Web -- you could get to know the people your friends know and expand your social network. Abrams' goal was to create a site that anyone could use. One of his inspirations for Friendster came from the way his friends networked in the real world. He wanted to create an equally organic experience using the Web. That meant designing a streamlined design and interface. Friendster gained popularity quickly. In 2003, the Internet search giant Google offered to purchase Friendster but a deal couldn't be reached. Years later, the two companies would sign a $20 million deal that would incorporate Google search services on the Friendster Web site. Alas, Friendster lost its dominant position in the U.S. social networking site market when MySpace's popularity skyrocketed, though it still has a strong user base in the U.S. and continues to be very popular in Asia.

6. Skyrock

Vive le Skyrock, the number one social networking site in France! Skyrock started off as a blog site called Skyblog, compliments of a French independent radio station SKYROCK Radio, 96.0 FM, in Paris. As its popularity grew, the site evolved gradually until into a fully-fledged social networking site. The site has all the bells and whistles of other social networking sites. Members can create profiles, write blog entries, converse in chat rooms and send messages to each other. They can make friends and see what other people are up to. And this all takes place in a kinetic Web environment packed with features -- there's not a square inch of Skyrock that isn't covered by pictures, profiles, animations or video. While the site is based in France, there are versions of Skyrock available in other languages including English, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese. According to comScore, the site ranks in the top 10 social networking sites in the world. As of July 2009, Skyrock had over 39 million members.

5. Hi5

As the fastest-growing social networking site in the world for the first half of 2008, Hi5 is the largest site of its kind that you may have never heard of. The site grew 78 percent in the first half of 2008 alone. Based in San Francisco, Hi5 launched in 2003 and was turning a profit by 2004. By 2005, the site had 10 million members. While sites like Facebook and MySpace began to dominate the U.S. social networking scene, Hi5 began to look at other opportunities internationally. In 2006, it launched a Spanish version of the site to great success. Versions of the site in other languages soon followed. This new focus paid off. Hi5 became the most popular social networking site in Mexico and many Latin American countries. Like many other social networking sites, members create profiles, share photos, play games and post messages.

4. YouTube

YouTube isn't what you'd traditionally call a social networking site. Its purpose is to provide a place where people can upload and view videos, most of which are user-generated. But it's one of the most popular places on the Web to interact -- and react -- via text or video comments: just one more way to keep people coming back. Anyone can view most YouTube videos, but to post one you need to create a member account. As a member, you can create user profiles and include as much or as little information about yourself as you like. Each member's page is customizable and hosts the videos that member has uploaded to YouTube. The hippest thing to do on YouTube these days may be video logging, or vlogging. It's similar to blogging -- members post videos in which they talk about a subject that interests or concerns them. Other users can comment on the video and conversations develop as a result. While YouTube has always featured a user comments option, the social networking aspect of the site really took off when the site introduced video comments in May 2006. Instead of leaving a text-based comment in response to a video, members can now record short videos in responses.

3. LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a social networking site designed for professionals. It boasts a membership of more than 35 million people and claims that executives from every Fortune 500 company has member profiles on the site. The profiles focus on members' professional experience and skills. But does everyone use it to their full potential? Maybe. Maybe not. "I'm sure there are people who have an account and profile on LinkedIn, and do nothing more than accept the occasional introduction to connect, and have been prospected as a candidate,” says Jason Alba, CEO of the job search organizer site JibberJobber.com. "If it were me," he continues, "I'd be much more aggressive, however, and have a more proactive LinkedIn strategy, which would include growing my network, searching for people in my target companies, using LinkedIn Answers, participating in groups, etc." The site also supports activities beyond networking with potential employers, employees or clients. For example, LinkedIn provides a platform that allows members to collaborate on projects -- a virtual meeting room of sorts.

2. Twitter

Part Web site, part Web service – Twitter is an online environment where users can create profiles, fill them with information and then build a network of people they "follow" (and a band of others who follow them). Twitter sends messages between users via the Short Message Service (SMS), better known as text messaging. Members send their texts through Twitter to those they allow to follow them. The messages, called Tweets, are super short: only 140 charters or shorter (there are technically 160 characters for use, but the first 20 are there to make room for user names in messages.) The new phenomenon is called microblogging and it's incredibly popular. "Even the president of the United States has a Facebook fan page and uses Twitter to reach the American public where he has over 262,000 followers," says Brenda Powell, president and founder of the company Social Networking Girls. All sorts of famous people are on Twitter. If you sign up for an account, you can follow astronauts, scientists, athletes, musicians, actors and writers. Or you can ignore the celebrities and focus on your friends. Some Twitterers use the service to arrange parties or other events. Others just like to keep their friends up to speed on what's going on in their lives. The messages can be sent via phone, through the Twitter Web site or one of hundreds new desktop or smart phone widgets.

1. Facebook

It was 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg started asking his fellow Harvard University students to try out his new idea known as "the facebook." The online community allowed his peers to create personal profiles, search for profiles and invite others from the university to join. It was a smashing success almost immediately. In 2006, Facebook opened its virtual doors to anyone with a registered e-mail address. Not content to rest upon his accomplishments, Zuckerberg continued to push for new features. One of the most revolutionary was creating an application programming interface (API) for third-party developers. Suddenly, programmers could design applications that could tap into Facebook's massive population. Applications range from simple games and diversions to clever marketing campaigns. In 2009, Facebook acquired FriendFeed and began to incorporate its aggregation services into Facebook profiles. Facebook is still a private company -- in early 2010, two major investors announced that Facebook would not seek an initial public offering (IPO) in 2010. Looks like you'll have to wait a while longer to get your hands on Facebook stock. In short: Facebook has become the most visited social networking site in the world, receiving more than 10 million unique visitors than MySpace in January 2009, making it the No. 1 social networking site on our list.