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Russia’s Internet censor says it will block access to Facebook but not WhatsApp and Instagram

The move is the latest escalation of a conflict that started soon after Russian’s invasion of Ukraine

(Chesnot/Photographer: Chesnot/Getty Imag)

Russia’s Internet censor on Friday announced it plans to block access to Facebook, a dramatic step that will cut Russian citizens’ access to information about the war in Ukraine.

Roskomnadzor, the country’s Internet censorship agency, announced the decision in a Telegram post, where it accused Meta-owned Facebook of violating laws by blocking the free flow of information to Russia and Russian media on its platform.

The move represents a significant shift for the Russian Internet ecosystem, which is rapidly diverging from the West as Russia’s Internet agency cracks down on Western media and some Western tech companies pull service from Russia. Russia is one of only a handful of governments around the world to block Facebook, joining China and North Korea.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a news briefing Friday that the restrictions on Facebook were part of Russia’s broader efforts to limit citizens’ access to news about the war in Ukraine. She noted that the government has also cracked down on journalists in the country, threatening to fine or jail them for using banned words to describe the Russian invasion into Ukraine.

“This is a pattern,” she said. “So certainly we are deeply concerned about this and concerned about the threat on freedom of speech in the country.”

WhatsApp and Instagram, which are also owned by Meta, did not appear to be subject to the announced block as they weren’t named in the post by Roskomnadzor. Instagram is more popular in Russia than Facebook and is used by many influencers.

Based on data from eMarketer, only about 7.3 percent of Internet users in Russia are on Facebook compared with 51 percent for Instagram and 66 percent for WhatsApp.

Roskomnadzor has been ratcheting up the pressure on major technology platforms in recent days, announcing that it has also sent letters to Google and Chinese-owned video sharing platform TikTok. As of Friday afternoon, TikTok, as well as Google’s YouTube, appeared to still be accessible in Russia. Twitter has said since Saturday that it was being “restricted for some people in Russia.”

“We’re aware of reports, but we don’t currently see anything significantly different from what we previously shared [on twitter.com] that would point to a block,” Twitter spokeswoman Elizabeth Busby said.

Social media has become an increasingly critical source for information about the war in Ukraine, as the Russian government aggressively censors media reports about the conflict. On Friday, Roskomnadzor also blocked access to the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Deutsche Welle. A number of Ukrainian news sites are blocked inside Russia, apparently by the Russian government, said Brett Callow, a threat analyst at Emsisoft, a cybersecurity firm.

The block is an escalation from last week, when Roskomnadzor said it would slow traffic to Facebook. Throughout the week, Roskomnadzor has been publicly putting Facebook on notice. It said it sent the company multiple letters demanding it remove restrictions on Russian media, accusing the company of trying to “form a one-sided picture.” In one letter, it called the company to lift its ban in Europe on RT and Sputnik, two Russian state media outlets.

“Soon, millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and silenced from speaking out,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook president for public affairs, in a tweet, about the decision. “We will continue to do everything we can to restore our services so they remain available to people to safely and securely express themselves and organize for action.”

The development is the latest escalation of a conflict that started soon after Russian’s invasion of Ukraine. Facebook began fact-checking misleading posts by Russian State media outlets, which are active on both Facebook and Meta-owned Instagram.

Clegg said that Russia demanded the company stop fact-checking. When the company refused, Russia began throttling its traffic in what it called a “partial” shutdown.

At the same time, Ukrainian officials have been begging Facebook to shut its services down entirely in Russia to send a message to the government, but Facebook executives have also resisted this because they believe that the service is a crucial channel for people to organize and find safety — particularly as Russia is shutting down or restricting local media outlets.

Heather Kelly contributed to this report.

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