MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin's top security adviser said on Friday that foreign-based websites were being used to foment anti-Kremlin protests, a sign authorities are seeking means to hamper access to social media sites used by activists.
Opposition leaders and ordinary Russians used Facebook to organize a wave of winter rallies which attracted tens of thousands of people onto Moscow's streets to protest alleged fraud by Putin's ruling party in a December 4 parliamentary election.
Since Putin's return to the Kremlin for a six-year presidential term on May 7, activists have relied on Twitter to defy riot police and coordinate sit-ins in the capital's parks.
Echoing Putin's accusation that the United States was backing his domestic opponents, his presidential Security Council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, said the Internet was being used by unspecified external forces "interested in aggravating the socio-political situation."
"Making use of internet freedom in our country, foreign sites are spreading political speculation, calls to unauthorized protests," Patrushev, a longtime Putin ally who headed Russia's FSB security service during his 2000-2008 presidency, told the Interfax news agency.
"The Russian blogosphere is also subject to outside influence directed at creating and maintaining constant tensions within society," he said.
Critics say the Kremlin's worry over the role of such sites is apparent in a draft law the ruling party proposed last month that would impose fines for internet users who spread the word about rallies at which demonstrators then violate city rules.
Russia's vibrant blogosphere and new web-based media are often the only alternative to tightly controlled media, particularly in its far-flung provinces.
Many bloggers fear hardliners in former KGB officer Putin's government such as Patrushev, who has called for "reasonable regulation" of the web, will push to restrict these freedoms. After his inauguration, Putin kept Patrushev in his post as secretary of the Security Council, which the president chairs.
While experts say Russia has not ruled out blocking access to sites that pose a threat in a moment of crisis, they say the FSB has few technical means and lacks a strategy for countering the opposition's use of social media sites.
Patrushev's comments were mainly posturing, said Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert on Russia's security forces.
"He wants a strategy on how to prevent the use of social networks as a mobilizing tool, but in fact (the security services) have failed to do this," Soldatov said.
"Technically it seems that they don't know how to counter social networks, and what to do about these mobilization campaigns, especially on Facebook."
Under Russian regulations, the intelligence services have access to all data transmitted by domestic internet providers via mandatory interception equipment on their premises, he said, but virtually no control over sites based abroad.
Unlike in China, where the state has control over the communication lines, Russia has thousands of channels and cannot easily limit access to the web at the source.
Moscow has called for a globally binding U.N. treaty on cyber security to crack down on Web crime.
Western countries have balked at the proposal but highly-publicized attacks by hacker groups Anonymous and LulzSec, including against U.S. and British government websites, have highlighted the Internet's vulnerabilities.
(Reporting By Alissa de Carbonnel)