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This is why Russia is tightening its grip on social media

File picture: Pexels

File picture: Pexels

Published Mar 15, 2021


By Robyn Dixon

Moscow - Russia is not likely to build its own version of China's Great Firewall to control the internet. The reasons are social (Russians like foreign social media and would hate to lose access) and technical (China's internet developed differently to Russia's, making it easier to cordon off.)

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But the Kremlin, increasingly insecure about rising social discontent over everything from food prices to political repressions, wants to crush online dissent. Can it do it?

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Is Russia getting serious about curbing the internet?

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It seems so, judging by the dramatic shift in tone. Everyone from Putin to the head of the Investigative Committee (Russia's FBI) are talking tough about the need for harsher controls on Russia's cyberspace and foreign social media companies.

On Wednesday, Roskomnadzor, the agency in charge of internet compliance and censorship, ordered Twitter to be slowed, accusing it of failing to remove banned content. The Kremlin cited posts it claimed encouraged young people to join anti-government protests and glorified suicide.

"They might be Rambo on the internet, pushing a boy or a girl to jump from a roof, but when the police find these freaks, they will fill their pants," Putin said March 4.

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Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Kremlin mouthpiece RT recently called for Russia to ban foreign social media after Instagram deleted one of her posts. Ironically, she made the call on Twitter.

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But why now?

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It's a sensitive time. Russian authorities face parliamentary elections due in September, the first since Putin engineered changes enabling him to potentially stay in power until 2036.

Putin's government also faces new sanctions over Western accusations it used a banned nerve agent to poison the country's leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny. His jailing in January triggered mass protests in more than 100 cities.

Navalny and his team use social media to oppose Putin's regime, expose eye-popping corruption and organize protest rallies. Their YouTube video "Putin's Palace - History of the World's Largest Bribe," about a colossal Black Sea palace that Navalny claims was built for Putin, was viewed more than 114 million times; Another on former president Dmitry Medvedev, "Don't Call Him Dimon," was seen nearly 43 million times.

Roskomnadzor deputy head Vadim Subbotin insisted Thursday that the Twitter slowdown had nothing to do with opposition protests.

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How much does Russia control?

The Washington-based research group Freedom House says Russia's internet is "not free," ranking it 51st of 65 countries in internet freedom.

Russia's internet operated relatively freely until 2012 when the government introduced a law enabling it to shut down websites, following mass protests. In 2019, the government passed a "sovereign internet" law designed to let Russia effectively flip off a switch to bar content. Internet providers must install devices so that content can be monitored.

Earlier this month, the agency announced charges against Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, TikTok and Russian sites VKontakte and Odnoklassniki for failing to remove content allegedly encouraging children to take part in protest actions or commit suicide. VKontakte was fined 1.5 million rubles, just over $20,000. There has been no public announcement on further action against the others.

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How have social media companies responded?

Twitter issued a statement Wednesday that it was deeply concerned about the action to throttle-back content, adding it had a zero-tolerance policy regarding child sexual exploitation, and that its rules also barred the promotion of suicide or self-harm.

Head of Roskomnadzor's department for telecommunications control and supervision, Yevgeny Zaitsev, said Friday that Twitter had not responded to its concerns nor answered questions. "We're ready for any dialogue, if only it existed," he said.

Telegram, an encrypted messaging app very popular with small Russian independent news outfits and opposition activists, has managed to stay ahead of Russian regulators since they tried to shut it down in 2018. The site frequently changes its website addresses.

The platform has been used as a key organizing tool for protest movements in Russia and neighboring Belarus. "Brains have been befuddled," Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenkosaid Sept. 9, complaining that "the internet and Telegram channels go so deep into people's brains."

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What else is standing in Putin's way?

Blocking foreign social media sites would cause a massive backlash. Young Russians have grown up with YouTube, Facebook and more recently Instagram, TikTok and Telegram. They don't watch the heavy-handed propaganda of state television.

Russia's internet control system likely means lower network speeds that could leave it lagging in advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles and the Internet of Things.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian Internet analyst, said Wednesday Russia's actions to slow Twitter "send a very bad signal" to the Russian tech industry and social media users. "It shows that there are people in the Kremlin who don't care about the consequences of their actions, if it helps them protect political stability," he said.

The Washington Post

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