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Russia moves to block professional networking site LinkedIn

Russia's communications regulator blocks access to LinkedIn after a court ruled the website guilty of violating a data storage law. (Video: Reuters)

“LINKED OUT” ran the headline on Russian state television. The U.S.-based website LinkedIn, a social network for business professionals, is going to be blocked in Russia after a court found the company guilty of violating a law on data storage.

Roskomnadzor, Russia's communications authority, told Interfax news agency on Thursday that the website would be blocked within 24 hours, and a number of Internet service providers appeared to have immediately begun blocking the website, according to media reports.

The block of LinkedIn, a widely-used yet sometimes bemoaned social network not known for political activity, led to surprise and mirth from some quarters. However, there were also some major concerns that the move against LinkedIn could mark a newly restrictive environment on the Russian Internet.

LinkedIn had been targeted under a law put in place by President Vladimir Putin in 2014 and came into force this year. The law, which was drawn up after social media was used to help organize widespread protests in Russia, required social networks with Russian users to store six months of data on Russian land.

While Putin and other Russian officials said the move was designed with privacy concerns in mind, activists said that it would give the government a pretext to block social networks to shut them down. “The aim of this law is to create . . . (another) quasi-legal pretext to close Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all other services,” Internet expert and blogger Anton Nossik told Reuters in 2014.

Others were concerned that storing information about users on Russian soil would allow authorities to target opposition leaders and protesters. “The aim is surveillance, obviously — to make servers of the companies accessible to the Russian national system of online surveillance, SORM, and also to get the Internet giants effectively landed in Russia,” Andrei Soldatov told WorldViews in an email. Soldatov is an expert on Russia's surveillance culture and the co-author of “The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.” 

LinkedIn does not have a major presence in Russia, where it has a relatively modest 6 million users, but it has the distinction of being the first social network to be targeted under these laws. Russian authorities have said that the site was initially investigated because LinkedIn was known for having a bad privacy track record. In 2012, millions of LinkedIn passwords were stolen after the website was hacked.

“They have a bad track record: Every year there’s a major scandal about the safety of user data,” Roskomnadzor representative Vadim Ampelonsky told the Moscow Times in October, noting that while Facebook and Twitter had regular meetings with the agency, LinkedIn did not.

A court ruled against LinkedIn in October, and an appeal against the decision was rejected by the Moscow city court on Nov. 10.

“The Russian court’s decision has the potential to deny access to LinkedIn for the millions of members we have in Russia and the companies that use LinkedIn to grow their businesses,” LinkedIn said in a statement issued in response.

Soldatov suggested that LinkedIn's relatively small size in Russia made it a target. “They came after them because they believe LinkedIn is [a] relatively easy target in comparison with bigger companies, and they need to show some results they achieved in data localization,” he said. “It all stalled with bigger companies, so why not to try with LinkedIn?”

LinkedIn also has complied with Chinese data laws, setting it apart from many of its peers.

Roskomnadzor told Reuters that LinkedIn's U.S. management had requested a meeting. Soldatov suggested that this may have been the intention. “It's a game,” he said. “They expect LinkedIn to rush to the Kremlin for talks.”

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