Why was a major Russian ISP shut down?

One of our Observers for Russia alerted us to the closure of one of the country's oldest Internet service providers (ISPs), and the various rumours that have sprung up following the police intervention. Censorship of political opinion or censorship of child pornography?

UPDATE (2.10.08 - 09.30am): After we published this post, Mikhail Verbitskysent us this message about the affair: "The closure shouldn't be connected to the fact that Rinet hosts my websites, because my sites are online. Formerly, when the authorities attacked lenin.ru, my server had been disconnected. What's going on is called in Russia: 'a conflict of economic entities'. In plain words it means that some police officials are extorting a bribe from Rinet, and have probably already got one. It's possible, on the other side, that these are just the fisrt steps of what's known in Russia as "raiderstvo" - a criminal scheme aimed to take over somebody's business. In this case a bribe won't be enough. But I hope not."

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"Rinet hosts, amongst others, the French Embassy in Moscow"

Rinet is one of the oldest and most well-known Russian ISPs and hosting companies. It hosts, amongst others, the French Embassy in Moscow. The Russian blogosphere is really shocked by this. Some bloggers say that Rinet was targeted because it hosts sites run by dissident Mikhail Verbitsly, such as his online magazine imperium.lenin.ru, which openly criticises the government. Others have suggested that it might have been taken out to get rid of the blog service lj.rossia.org, which offers an "uncensored" version of LiveJournal [rumours have been swirling that LiveJournal, once owned by a US company and now by a Russian one, is censored].

Commenting on the news, Verbitsky wrote on his blog on Tuesday: "there's a certain risk that we're going down. The damn regime!"

Dmitry Flitman, one of Rinet's chief officers, told me that he doubts the rumours.

"The formal reason is that a month ago during a search they found some bad stuff on our local network - child pornography. Today they came to confiscate our servers and other equipment as part of the investigation, to find out who sent what where. And because they don't understand how things work in our industry, they will take ALL of our servers.

These kinds of files could be found on any network, not just ours. So, maybe the search was "ordered" by our commercial competitors, and not by the government. The police don't seem to be interested in the shared servers, where lenin.ru and other Verbitsky sites are hosted. They only confiscated our infrastructure equipment. Our work is paralysed - 25,000 users are down. All we've got left is our emails!"

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