Russia’s regulators have been warning Silicon Valley companies since the winter to comply with demands to preserve pro-Kremlin material, even when it breaks their rules, and remove anti-Kremlin material even when it doesn’t. The pressure in recent days has mounted, with a mandate to Google to block thousands of pieces of content or be throttled — and coupled with a court-imposed fine for failing to restore a conspiratorial YouTube channel taken down ostensibly for breaching U.S. sanctions. These salvos accompany orders issued to Facebook and Twitter last Wednesday to onshore data on local users. It’s all part of an attempt to build a “sovereign Internet” cutting citizens off from the rest of the world — but also from each other.
Russia’s worries are domestic; its campaign took off in earnest after platforms became key to protests in support of the imprisoned opposition politician Alexei Navalny in January. But the crackdown will reverberate worldwide. Already, others are taking cues: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko intercepted a European airliner to arrest a dissident journalist whose media company operates primarily on the messaging app Telegram — perhaps in part because the regime has been unable to shut off Telegram itself. Now Belarus has banned live streams of unauthorized protests, unauthorized opinion polls and links to verboten information.
The trend isn’t restricted to the region. India also accelerated its already alarming attacks on Twitter last week, sending a squadron of police officers to the company’s New Delhi headquarters to “serve a notice” after Twitter applied a “manipulated media” label to tweets by the ruling party. There is, incidentally, no law in the country against doing so. Twitter is particularly vulnerable in India because this headquarters exists. Indeed, other nations hovering between authoritarianism and democracy have already imposed, or may soon impose, requirements for in-country representatives on foreign firms. How else to scare companies into compliance but to threaten employees’ safety? Perhaps this is India’s strategy for coercing sites into acquiescing to the absurd request, also issued last week, that they scrub out all references to an “Indian variant” of covid-19.
Sometimes, platforms give in to the dictates that come their way, arguing that they must obey local laws; sometimes, they push back, as with Google’s appeal of Russian rulings and WhatsApp’s lawsuit against nascent Indian rules that would preclude end-to-end encryption. The fight will get only harder, however, as countries continue to escalate their abuses — which they will surely do if the United States and its allies continue to be silent.