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Why Russia is tightening its grip on social media

Red Square in Moscow this week. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Russia is not likely to build its own version of China’s Great Firewall to control the Internet. The reasons are social (Russians like foreign social media and would hate to lose access) and technical (China’s Internet developed differently than Russia’s, making it easier to cordon off.)

But the Kremlin, increasingly insecure about rising social discontent over everything from food prices to political repression, wants to crush online dissent. Can it do it?

Is Russia getting serious about curbing the Internet?

It seems so, judging by the dramatic shift in tone. Everyone from Russian President Vladimir Putin to the head of the Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) are talking tough about the need for harsher controls on Russia’s cyberspace and foreign social media companies.

On Wednesday, Roskomnadzor, the agency in charge of Internet compliance and censorship, ordered Twitter to be slowed, accusing it of failing to remove banned content. The Kremlin cited posts it claimed encouraged young people to join anti-government protests and glorified suicide.

“They might be Rambo on the Internet, pushing a boy or a girl to jump from a roof, but when the police find these freaks, they will fill their pants,” Putin said March 4.

Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Kremlin mouthpiece RT, recently called for Russia to ban foreign social media after Instagram deleted one of her posts. Ironically, she made the call on Twitter.

The Kremlin has its hands in the Internet around the world. It's having more trouble controlling it at home.

But why now?

It’s a sensitive time. Russian authorities face parliamentary elections in September, the first since Putin engineered changes enabling him to potentially stay in power until 2036.

Putin’s government also faces new sanctions over Western accusations it used a banned nerve agent to poison the country’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. His jailing in January triggered mass protests in more than 100 cities.

Navalny and his team use social media to oppose Putin’s regime, expose alleged corruption and organize protest rallies. Their YouTube video “Putin’s Palace — History of the World’s Largest Bribe,” about a colossal Black Sea palace that Navalny claims was built for Putin, has been viewed more than 114 million times. Another on former president Dmitry Medvedev, “Don’t Call Him ‘Dimon,’” has been seen nearly 43 million times.

Roskomnadzor deputy head Vadim Subbotin said Thursday that the Twitter slowdown had nothing to do with opposition protests.

How much does Russia control?

The Washington-based research group Freedom House says Russia’s Internet is “not free,” ranking it 51st out of 65 countries on Internet freedom.

Russia’s Internet operated relatively freely until 2012, when the government introduced a law enabling it to shut down websites, following mass protests. In 2019, the government passed a “sovereign Internet” law designed to let Russia effectively flip a switch to bar content. Internet providers must install devices so that content can be monitored.

Earlier this month, Roskomnadzor announced charges against Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, TikTok and the Russian sites VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, saying they failed to remove content allegedly encouraging children to take part in protest actions or commit suicide. VKontakte was fined 1.5 million rubles, just over $20,000. There has been no public announcement on further action against the others.

Russia enacts 'sovereign Internet law,' and free-speech advocates cry foul

How have social media companies responded?

Twitter issued a statement Wednesday that it was deeply concerned about the action to throttle back content, adding that it has a zero-tolerance policy regarding child sexual exploitation and that its rules also bar the promotion of suicide or self-harm.

The head of Roskomnadzor’s department for telecommunications control and supervision, Yevgeny Zaitsev, said Friday that Twitter had not responded to its concerns nor answered questions. “We’re ready for any dialogue, if only it existed,” he said.

Telegram, an encrypted messaging app popular with small Russian independent news outfits and opposition activists, has managed to stay ahead of Russian regulators since they tried to shut it down in 2018. The site frequently changes its website addresses.

The platform has been used as a key organizing tool for protest movements in Russia and neighboring Belarus. “Brains have been befuddled,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Sept. 9, complaining that “the Internet and Telegram channels go so deep into people’s brains.”

How the founder of the Telegram messaging app stood up to the Kremlin — and won

What else is standing in Putin’s way?

Blocking foreign social media sites would prompt a massive backlash. Young Russians have grown up with YouTube, Facebook and, more recently, Instagram, TikTok and Telegram. They don’t watch the heavy-handed propaganda of state television.

Russia’s Internet control system probably means lower network speeds that could leave it lagging in advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles and “Internet of things” technology.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian Internet analyst, said Wednesday that Russia’s actions to slow Twitter “send a very bad signal” to the Russian tech industry and social media users. “It shows that there are people in the Kremlin who don’t care about the consequences of their actions if it helps them protect political stability,” he said.

Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.