When Vladimir Putin launched into a diatribe about the internet and called it a CIA project, the rant got plenty of coverage. Unfortunately though, the West perceived the rant as just another of Putin's megalomaniacal outbursts aimed at them. Little or no real analysis went into the question of why, while at a conference on media in St. Petersburg, the president of Russia would say those things or what he hoped to achieve by saying them.
So, why did he do it?
Everyone already knows about PRISM, the NSA's program that collected a googolplex of information which is stored in cavernous secret facilities constructed expressly for that very purpose. Did he do it for the reason he gave for doing it? When Putin told the Russian people to stop using Google because the CIA was spying on them, and when he told them that they should instead use the Russian search engine Yandex, he should have expected that foreign investors would panic and that Yandex would drop the nearly five percent in value that it devalued. Putin is savvy. He understands the impact his voice has.
Vladimir Putin had a very different purpose in mind for his announcement. And not surprisingly, the impact was felt around the world.
His purpose was to move every single Russian into his sphere of influence. And the best way to do that is to be in control of social media. Up until now, Putin has successfully controlled and silenced all opposition because of his influence on almost every single traditional Russian media outlet. In Russia you never see an opposing figure on television, hear a dissenting voice on radio or read an unfavorable opinion piece in the traditional print press -- which is still very powerful in Russia. The opposition has been barred from the media.
The only place that the opposition has any freedom to operate without control, censorship or Big Brother is on international servers like Google.
Voices in opposition of Putin send announcements and broadcast messages and conduct discussions through video and audio posts. They announce their protests and rallies on social media. Putin wants to clamp down on that outlet for access to the public. He want to stymie his dissenters. And, this is crucial, he wants to listen in.
The Russian parliament passed a law, only several days before Putin spoke out in St. Petersburg, forcing all Russian social media websites to use Russian servers. Ostensibly, the reason for the law is for Russians to "Buy Russian." But it is clear that there is far more to the law than simple patriotism. The law also demands that Russian servers keep a record of all internet activity and store that record in a way so that it is totally accessible to the authorities. The records must be stored for six months. And it is no coincidence that Russia's leading social media outlet, VKontakte, is controlled by a group with extremely close ties to the president.
The real reason for Putin's diatribe at the media conference had far more to do with galvanizing internal Russian interests than the ostensible and obvious slap in the face to Western corporations like Google and arch enemy the United States of America.
Vladimir Putin is far more sophisticated than he appears. He acts like a bully and behaves like a thug all in order to intimidate. It is when he changes his persona that we need to worry. Putin can be subtle and illusive. And he is always manipulative. And this time around, he manipulated the West with ease.
Never underestimate President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Follow Micah D. Halpern on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@micahhalpern