Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has threatened to ban Twitter if it does not remove illegal content from its platform. Russia slowed down Twitter’s services nationally last week and has given the US social media giant one month to comply with the demand. After the month is over, Roskomnadzor has said it will block Twitter entirely.
Roskomnadzor slowed down Twitter’s services nationwide on 10 March. This was due to Twitter’s alleged noncompliance with a new law that came into force in Russia on 1 February. The law requires social media firms to identify and immediately block Russian prohibited content on their platforms inside the country.
According to a statement on the Roskomnadzor website, all mobile devices and 50% of desktop devices running Twitter are affected. The new law and the throttling of Twitter’s services is ostensibly to “protect Russian citizens” from harmful content. However, many believe these actions are related to the recent protests against the jailing of Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In recent months, Russia has placed increased pressure on Western social media platforms hosting content that supports Navalny.
In its announcement last week, the regulator didn’t mention the protests in which social media played a part in their organization. Nor did it mention the pro Navalny tweets and those calling for his freedom as banned Twitter content. Instead, it said the banned content related to posts inciting suicide amongst minors, child pornography and drug abuse.
Potential Twitter Ban
Roskomnadzor gave Twitter one month from 10 March to remove the illegal content. The regulator warned Twitter that the sanctions would continue until the content was deleted. Furthermore, the deputy head of Roskomnadzor, Vadim Subbotin, told the state-owned TASS Russian News Agency that “If Twitter does not comply with the requirements of Roskomnadzor, the requirements of Russian legislation, respectively, we will consider an option to completely block the service on the territory of Russia.”
In its statement the regulator said that Twitter contained 3,168 tweets it had flagged as banned content. And which Twitter had failed to remove after “over 28,000 initial and repeated requests”.
Russia is reportedly also suing Twitter, along with TikTok, Google, Facebook and Telegram, for allegedly refusing to delete posts that illegally urged children to take part in the recent anti-Kremlin protests.
Free Speech Under Threat
A Twitter spokesperson said last week that it was worried about the impact Russia’s actions would have on free speech. “We remain committed to advocating for the Open Internet around the world and are deeply concerned by increased attempts to block and throttle online public conversation,” a Twitter spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
Furthermore, the social media firm denied that it allowed its platform to be used for illegal activity, as Russian authorities claim. “Let us be clear – we have a zero-tolerance policy regarding child sexual exploitation, it is against the Twitter Rules to promote, glorify or encourage suicide and self-harm, and we do not allow the use of Twitter for any unlawful behaviour or to further illegal activities, including the buying and selling of drugs,” the statement continued.
Traditionally Russia has taken more of a detached position with regards to policing the internet when compared to neighboring China. However, with rising domestic political tension, thanks to the nationwide protests, Russia has taken a tougher stand. This has placed social media firms in an increasingly difficult position with regards to Russian censorship. They have two options. They can either comply with government orders and limit free speech on their apps. Or they can stand firm on their principles of free speech and risk being banned, which kills free speech nonetheless.
Russian Government Websites Go Offline
Interestingly, shortly after the slowdown of Twitter’s services was announced, news followed that key Russian government public websites were offline. Also affected was Roskomnadzor’s own public website. The immediacy of the events led to suspicions that the two events were linked. And that the government had inadvertently brought down its own websites.
The suspicions were further reinforced by the fact that this wasn’t the first such incident. In 2019, Roskomnadzor tried to block the social messaging app Telegram. However, in the process it disrupted hundreds of Russian websites and commercial services, while Telegram continued to function as normal.
Russian authorities denied that last week’s events were linked. However, cybersecurity experts found evidence that the throttling of Twitter’s services had accidentally taken down other websites, including government ones.