One of the very most under-reported critical facts about Russia is the total lack of Internet access available to the country’s general population, which remains in the dark ages. Thus, claims about freedom on Russia’s Internet counterbalancing the loss of TV and newspaper freedom are wholly bogus. Paul Goble reports:
Despite reports about the expansion of Internet use in Russia, more than half of that country’s urban residents over age 12 have never gone online, and more than a third have never used a computer, global figures which set Russia apart from Western countries but ones that conceal deep divisions within the Russian Federation in the electronic world.
Those are just some of the findings offered in a 144-page report released this week that was prepared by the Public Opinion Foundation on the basis of interviews with 34,000 people in 1920 cities and towns of the Russian Federation. The findings suggested that when variations among various educational and regional groups in Western countries are reported, the Western press speaks of “digital divides.” But these divides are so much deeper in Russia, the news agency says, that it is better to refer to them as a digital “gulf” or “abyss.”
Not only have 54 percent of Russia’s urban residents over 12 never gone online, but ten percent of this group say they have never heard of the Internet. Moreover, of those who are not going online now, a third of the population says that it has “neither the desire, nor the possibility” to do so. And only eight percent of those not online say they plan to be this year.
Equally striking are two other general findings: Thirty-six percent of the sample said they had never used a computer, but in contrast to the situation only a few years ago, those who do go online are more likely to do it at home rather than at work, something that reflects greater connectivity and probably affects how Russians use this medium.
While the survey found Internet use to be relatively high in Moscow and St. Petersburg, in the other parts of the country, the Public Opinion Foundation study found that penetration of this technology was relatively low, averaging only 11 percent or significantly less, although in this area too there were some interesting divides as well.
Perhaps the most intriguing is that more than a quarter – 28 percent – of those who go online in the Southern Federal District – which includes the North Caucasus — do so via their mobile telephones, a reflection of the shortage of landlines in that region but a pattern that makes the Internet potentially more important as a means of connecting people opposed to the regime. Moreover, this finding is a classical example of the way in which those who participate in this and other technical worlds may skip a stage, going directly from snail mail to cell phones rather than through all the stages that the countries which pioneered the current communications revolution have gone through.
Another intriguing example of such a leap from one level of communications technology to a much more advanced one came with the announcement of a launch of an Internet TV service for the Finno-Ugric peoples, groups historically poorly served by native language television in the past. Half – 46 to 53 percent – of those who do use the Internet use it for e-mail and social networking, but what struck the researchers at the Public Opinion Foundation as important is that 53 percent of those going online said they did not express their own opinions, and 52 percent did they did not listen to the opinions of others expressed in Internet forums. And in a finding that also divides Russians from many other peoples around the world, only 25 percent of Russians said that their lives would be significantly changed if they no longer had access to the World Wide Web, and nearly as large a share said that their lives would not be affected at all if they could no longer go online.
Such experiences and attitudes suggest that Russians are not as passionately affected by or committed to the Internet as many have assumed on the basis of uncritical extrapolations from American or West European experience where the Internet has been integrated into and plays a far larger role in the life and work of a larger part of the population. And these Russian patterns also suggest both that Moscow would face far less opposition if they move, as the parliament of Kazakhstan did this week, to seriously restrict access to the web and that outsiders should not view the Internet as being as important a transforming force or influential player as all too many now do.