We've written plenty about growing internet censorship
in Russia. What started (of course) officially as a plan to "protect the children" by blocking access to content that might be dangerous for children has expanded to cover pretty much anything the current government dislikes -- including opposition politicians. Last March, we wrote about how Russia was taking down a wide variety of websites in an effort to block access
to the website of leading opposition candidate Alexei Navalny. The government even blocked the website of a radio station and a bunch of independent news sites for daring to display copies of Navalny's own website.
Of course, with so much information online now being spread via American social media companies, Russia has been increasingly turning to those companies to help in its censorship regime. The Wall Street Journal recently looked at how Twitter, Google and Facebook
all responded to censorship demands from Russia, as the government is trying to stamp out a planned rally in support of Navalny. The short summary, as noted by Mathew Ingram
is that Facebook initially complied but has since stopped, Google hasn't complied and Twitter not only refused to comply but also alerted the users
in question that the Russian government was trying to censor them:
In response to a request from Russian prosecutors, Roskomnadzor, the country’s communications regulator, began issuing block orders for Russia just hours after the Moscow rally was publicized on social media late last week, officials said. Facebook honored the initial order last weekend and blocked a page promoting the event, but others were quickly created, attracting more attention.
Since then, Facebook has left the other pages promoting the rally active in Russia, including one that shows more than 32,000 users indicating they will attend. Facebook lawyers are reviewing a growing number of Russian government removal requests, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Twitter Inc. confirmed that it has received multiple directives since last week from Russian authorities to remove tweets and accounts that promote the rally, citing a prosecutorial order under Russian federal law. But a Twitter spokesman said the company has “not removed the content they specified,” and has been forwarding the government orders to users to warn them.
Google Inc.’s YouTube still has videos promoting the rally available on its Russian site, despite the government’s directives.
Russian officials quoted in the article note, fairly confidently, that the blocks "will be fulfilled," which likely means other plans are in place to try to filter the same content, perhaps at the ISP level. Also interesting is that Russia's own (super popular) Facebook competitor, VKontakte, apparently has also refused to block the info, saying that it would "create an unfair competitive advantage for foreign social networks and turn people away from VKontakte." This is doubly surprising since a few months back, the company's founder was effectively pressured into selling the site to a businessman with close ties to Putin
The article also contains a fairly astounding quote from a Russian parliament member, Mikhail Degtyaryov, in response to former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, faulting Facebook for its initial decision to block the page about the Navalny rally. Here was Degtyaryov's quote:
“McFaul should be quiet and Facebook should obey Russian laws. We know what happens to countries that don’t limit extremist activity online—that’s the ‘Arab Spring’…Russia doesn’t need that.”
Indeed, I'm sure that Russia doesn't want
an angry public speaking out against a government out of touch with the public, but it's pretty bizarre to see a government official outright condemn what happened in the Arab Spring -- which was a clear move away from authoritarian dictatorships and into democracy. Degtyaryov's comment is basically saying that Russia prefers dictatorship to democracy. That may be true, but it's still rare for a politician to outright admit that.
Either way, it's yet another example of the internet -- and its still partially borderless nature -- creating headaches for regimes that are used to controlling the message absolutely.