MOSCOW — Comments by a top telecom official suggesting that Russia might soon block access to Twitter were swiftly condemned Friday — even by other government officials — providing a rare window into differences of opinion inside the Kremlin over how best to censor voices of dissent.
In an interview with a local newspaper, Maxim Ksenzov, deputy head of the government’s
telecommunications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, called Twitter a “political” tool that undermines the state’s authority. “We can block Twitter or Facebook tomorrow for several minutes,” Ksenzov said. “We do not see any risks in that.”
Ksenzov said the government would then weigh “the consequences from switching off the social networks” against “the damage that is being done to Russian society” by online posts to determine whether to permanently block the sites.
This month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that requires popular bloggers to register their sites with the government, expanding a creeping stranglehold on freedom of expression. The law takes effect Aug. 1.
Ksenzov’s comments Friday came in response to a question about whether Russia has the technical capabilities to implement a Twitter ban like that adopted last month by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ksenzov, who hinted that Twitter might be controlled by the U.S. government, said blocking Twitter was “practically inevitable.”
But a popular backlash on the Internet, and from top levels of
the government, forced a public retraction from the telecommunications agency hours later.
Ksenzov, who has complained repeatedly about Twitter’s refusal to delete content that the Kremlin defines as “extremist,” told the Interfax news agency that his words had been misinterpreted and that they really constituted “more of a warning to Twitter’s management.”
“Nobody has spoken about closing access to popular social networks in Russia,” he said.
Earlier, Ksenzov, who has tweeted more than 2,200 times and has more than 900 Twitter followers — a number that was steadily growing Friday — took to the social network as the interview went viral to respond to a slew of sarcastic remarks about the state’s increasingly restrictive policies.
Some mockingly warned Ksenzov not to use Twitter because it was giving U.S. intelligence agencies access to his personal data.
But comments also came from the Kremlin, underscoring possible divisions over how best to enforce Russia’s new “blogger law,” or the possibility that Ksenzov was used to test the waters of a potentially unpopular policy move. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a self-described “active user of social networking sites,” wrote on his Facebook page that officials should “use their brain” before announcing the closure of a site.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told the pro-government Izvestia newspaper that “monitoring bodies” should avoid exploiting legal loopholes to persecute the media and social networking sites but that “social networking sites must show maximum responsibility on the subject of abiding by the laws.”
Putin has moved increasingly to censor opposition voices in recent months, particularly online. Earlier this year, the state blocked several opposition and news Web sites.
“Twitter and Facebook today are the main resources for alternative information,” said Oleg Kozyrev, a popular Russian blogger and media expert. “That’s why they just want to block them, so that people will not have alternative information.”
One of the main narratives that the Kremlin seeks to control is that of the events playing out in eastern Ukraine, where Ukraine’s interim government has accused Russia of backing separatist militants in a bid to destabilize the nation.
Each side has accused the other of propagating blatant lies over social media.
Moscow’s moves to silence opposition at home also come at a time when tensions between Russia and the United States and Europe, amid the worsening crises in Ukraine and Syria, have reached the highest point since the Cold War.
But at home, events in Ukraine have stoked a fresh tide of nationalism.
Putin is enjoying his highest domestic approval rating in six years, according to state-run and independent polling groups. The pro-government All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion said Thursday that nearly 86 percent of Russians polled said they support Putin.
The statistics are likely to have been inflated, but analysts say Putin’s popularity is running high, making this a potentially ideal moment to strengthen the state’s censorship of critics.
“He has been able to polarize society,” Kozyrev said, “so the people who used to support him now support him more aggressively.”
Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.