Behind Russia’s Recent Threat to Throttle Or Block Social Media Platforms

Photo: Free Grunge Textures licensed under CC BY 2.0

This week, Russia’s government seems to have taken another step in its efforts to control online discourse by warning Facebook and YouTube that they would face slowdowns, or worse, blocking, if they didn’t guarantee 100% compliance for all takedown requests made by the government.

This latest is part of a larger pattern that started taking shape in March this year, when the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media” (ROSKOMNADZOR), Russia’s telecommunications watchdog, imposed slowdowns on Twitter services across Russia. This slowdown came on the heels of the state’s claim that Twitter had failed to comply with takedown requests relating to child pornography, drug use, and calls for minors to commit suicide. ROSKOMNADZOR also noted that the slowdown was an interim measure and set a month-long deadline (later extended to mid-May) for Twitter to remove all content considered unlawful by the government before completely blocking the platform for non-action.

As with any other State, Russia’s online crackdown to regulate allegedly ‘prohibited content’ is best read in conjunction with its offline actions for what it considers prohibited. In April 2021, over one thousand Russian citizens were arrested for attending unauthorized protests in support of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny. Russian authorities also imprisoned the editor of an independent news outlet for retweeting a joke that promoted such protests. The law used to justify these sanctions is one banning protests in Russia. Similarly, several other laws curbing dissent online have also been passed in Russia over the last few years, the most problematic of which is one which disconnects Russia from the global internet, if needed. We’ve discussed the top five of such Russian laws here.

Ironically, while regimes such as Russia see curbing of dissent on social media as an effective short term measure to ensure a controlled narrative, a study carried out by economists Sergei Guriev, Nikita Melnikov and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya reveals how people’s confidence in their leaders declined with the expansion of 3G mobile network. Even though digital censorship lessened the effect, the long-term trend continued to exhibit a steady decline in approval.

Earlier this week, on the 17th of May, the ROSKOMNADZOR released a statement that it had taken a decision against blocking the platform because internal audits had shown that over 90% of prohibited information was being removed. Of the 6,000 ‘banned content’, only 563 continued to remain accessible. Even so, the telecommunications watchdog flagged that it would continue to slow down Twitter traffic on mobile devices unless 100% of the requested content was removed.

The Lumen Database reveals over 4,200 takedown requests sent to Twitter by ROSKOMNADZOR since May 2020 with anything between 2 and 500 URLs in each request. Of these, Twitter has taken action upon over 4,000 of these requests. While a majority of the takedown requests are for content relating to self-harm, child pornography, and supply of psychotropic substances, there are also notices such as the one that can be found here that requested the removal of content relating to participating in mass public events as ‘events held in violation of the established order.

Meanwhile, similar warnings of slowdown and blocking have been made to YouTube and Facebook for non-compliance with 100% of takedown orders and such a slowdown is likely to have a more far-reaching effect on YouTube because of the nature of its service. Importantly YouTube as a communication channel has been a boon for government critics in Russia because of state-controlled television. This makes the threat to slow it down increasingly pertinent. At the moment, the Lumen database indicates that there are over 45,000 takedown requests made to Google by ROSKOMNADZOR. Of these, there were several disclosures made such as the one here, indicating that 462 URLs were removed from the web at government request but the full list of the nature of such information could not be published due to Russian law. At this time, there is no way to be certain of the number and types of legal requests made by ROSKOMNADZOR to Facebook, because it does not disclose the takedown requests it receives publicly.

Russian courts have regularly fined platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok for failing to remove calls for protest and action against the government. Last month, a Russian Court fined Twitter over $100,000 for failing to remove calls for protests rallying support for Navalny from its platform. TikTok also faced a penalty of over $30,000 levied by a regional District Magistrate Court in Russia for failing to remove posts that encouraged young adults to join similar calls for protest.

Twitter has a demonstrated history of making decisions to defend its users’ freedom of speech. For instance, in the USA, Twitter fought a subpoena that required them to release the personal identity of an anonymous account that mocked a Republican Representative. In India, the platform took a strong stand against removing information put out by media outlets about an ongoing farmers’ protest. As Former UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression David Kaye noted, this is the kind of resistance to abuse of power that the world needs more of.

However, it can’t be overlooked that territories like Russia and India make up a substantial part of social media platforms’ user base and may help them touch their next ‘billion users’ mark. So the threat of platforms being blocked, coupled with threats of criminal sanctions against its employees made by State authorities, could very well be the reason for the slow but noticeable shift being made by platforms to align with authoritarian regimes’ demands, avoid costly confrontation and remain in business in these countries. Even so, most online platforms have the ability to remain transparent to a large extent about the kind of information that governments insist on having taken down from their platforms, should they so choose, by making regular disclosures on the Lumen Database, or by sharing them with the public in any other format.

For now, it looks like the internet continues to be a proxy for public squares in countries like Russia, a place where citizens can gather to be critical of their government. It will be interesting to follow which future measures the Russian authorities will put into place in order to maintain control over the prevailing narrative.​

About the Author:

Shreya is an Employee Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center, where she works on the Lumen Project. She is a passionate digital rights activist and uses her research and writing to raise awareness about how digital rights are human rights.

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Lumen Database Team

Collecting and facilitating research on requests to remove online material. Visit lumendatabase.org and email us if you have questions.