Kremlin Censorship Goes International Ahead Of Presidential Elections

December 19, 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, the issue of freedom of speech is once again slipping into a potentially critical condition.  From Donald Trump’s rage against the “fake news media”, to accusations of Kremlin interference in the US elections via targeted ads, to the latest news that Roskomnadzor (the Russian communications watchdog) is threatening to block both Twitter and Youtube in Russia, there has scarcely been a more important time in recent years to defend one of civilisation’s most precious freedoms: the right to criticise.

Twitter has previously faced criticism for censoring users with ‘controversial’ political opinions, and in some cases acting in favour of certain authoritarian governments who sought to silence critics of their regimes.  Roskomnadzor’s demands to both Twitter and Youtube to remove Open Russia and Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s personal platforms are a textbook call for authoritarian censorship, backed up by intimidation.  Whether the two social media giants will comply with the Kremlin’s demands, and whether Roskomnadzor will stay true to its threat of a nationwide ban is currently anybody’s guess.

What’s shocking about the Kremlin’s demands is that they extend far beyond the country’s borders and reach right into the heart of the debate over freedom of speech that has been bubbling away for a number of years online.  Although such threats are not entirely new, how Twitter and Youtube respond will say a lot about the willingness of those at the top of the tech industry to stand up for principles as basic as the right to freedom of expression — a right guaranteed, in fact, by the Russian constitution.

By order of the Attorney General’s office, Roskomnadzor has been forced to comply with a recent amendment to a law that allows Russian authorities to block the internet resources of organisations officially deemed to be ‘undesirable’ in the Russian Federation.  However, the legal details of the law are so flexible, and the criteria for violating them so broad, that one can be prosecuted for as little as reposting a link to such a website.

The British organisation Otkrytaya Rossiya was officially recognised as ‘undesirable’ back in April 2017 at request of the Attorney General’s office.  However, recent moves by the Russian authorities to shut down all activity connected with the Open Russia Movement (a civic movement), the media platform Open Russia and Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who is a Russian citizen, and by definition cannot be considered an ‘undesirable organisation’) do not have a legal basis in Russian law, and have been considered a flagrant assault on the country’s political opposition which already faces constant harassment.

Twitter’s terms and conditions state that an account may be suspended for three key reasons: “posting spam, being hacked or compromised, or because it “engages in abusive behaviour, like sending threats to others or impersonating other accounts”.  None of these criteria apply to Roskomnadzor’s recent demands for Open Russia and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s personal platforms to be shut down.

Roskomnadzor accused Twitter of disseminating information “containing appeals to mass riots, extremist activities…” as well as “information materials of a foreign or international non-governmental organisation whose activities were considered to be undesirable in the territory of the Russian Federation…”

Heavily ambiguous in the legal sense, the new amendments to the law on ‘foreign agents’ demonstrate the intention to use the weight of the judicial system as a weapon with which to stamp out any information sources deemed ‘undesirable’ to the regime, which enjoys lavish control over the organs of state power, including the Attorney General’s office.  However, this time the desire to neutralise political opposition has not stopped at the Russian border.

The Kremlin has already threatened to block access to Twitter in Russia once before back in 2014 under the pretext that certain Tweets had violated Russian law.  In response to pressure from Roskomnadzor, Twitter acted to block the account of Right Sector (Pravy Sektor) — a nationalist political party from Ukraine — and all other accounts linked to it.

These decisions led many to believe that Russia was following in the steps of China, a country that has replaced international social media networks with its own local alternatives that can be easily monitored and restricted by the government.  Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009 when it was blamed for playing a role in the organisation of nationwide protests, citing issues of “national security”.  The Russian government has already taken control of popular Russian social network VKontakte after its founder, Pavel Durov, left the country due to a dispute with the network’s Kremlin-connected owners.

The Russian government has threatened Twitter numerous times in the past over the circulation of materials critical of Kremlin activity, calling for the personal details of popular online bloggers to be handed over to the Russian security services.  As a result, Russia has earned itself a spot just below Turkey in the list of governments that have most frequently made demands for Twitter to censor materials on their behalf.

Of 3.17 billion Internet users, 2.3 billion are active on social media.  The giants of the social media world have unprecedented power and responsibility in influencing the future of public discourse on a scale that far exceeds any national boundaries.  For Twitter and Youtube, caving in to the whims of Kremlin authoritarians is to play the role of censor for a regime that regularly violates the human rights of it citizens on straightforward political pretexts.  Let’s hope that Twitter and Youtube find the courage to stand up for freedom of expression and tell the Kremlin where to stick it.