Putin a Stop to Twitter: Russia attempts to slow down access to Twitter

March 30, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Russian communications watchdog, Roskomnazdor, has announced that it will be slowing access to Twitter, affecting all Russian mobile devices in the wake of anti-government protests in recent months.

What does this mean?

Russia is specifically slowing the loading speeds of photos and videos on the platform. This is in reaction to Twitter refusing Russia’s request to delete some 3000 posts dating back to 2017 which the government deems illegal and “encourage underage suicide, child pornography and drug use”. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, warned that “society will collapse” if the internet did not adhere to “formal legal rules and the moral laws of society”. The crackdown comes as Russia aims to reduce the influence of popular social networking sites which have allowed supporters of recently imprisoned Alexei Navalny, Mr Putin’s staunchest critic, to organise nationwide protests at the start of this year. A Twitter spokesperson emphasised that the platform “does not allow the use of Twitter for any unlawful behaviour” and is “deeply concerned by increased attempts to block and throttle online public conversation”. Roskomnazdor has warned that Twitter could be fully blocked if the company fails to show any signs of compliance with “the demands of the law”.

What's the big picture effect?

Russia’s policy of enforcing strict internet censorship is nothing new. The Russian government implemented its first internet blacklist law in 2012 which aimed to tackle content from child pornography to suspected extremism. As the internet has developed, so has the country’s laws and Twitter is not the only company taking the heat at the moment either. In January, Russia threatened to fine various companies, including Facebook and TikTok, upwards of £39,000 for failing to delete content that encouraged young people to participate in protests. It is questionable whether this would be effective. Realistically, compared to Facebook’s total net worth ($528bn) and TikTok’s ($50bn), such fines would not dent these tech giant’s piggy banks. Aleksandr Khinshtein, a member of the Russian Parliament, said that the latest action against Twitter was intended as a warning to other American companies that Russia will not stand idly by while they break the law. This marks Russia’s first public use of deep packet inspection (DPI) technology (advanced method of examining/altering internet traffic) since it started building its sovereign internet in 2019. This seems to indicate that the buffering of content could be expected on other platforms in the near future. Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president, boasted that Russia is “legally and technologically” capable of disconnecting from the global internet but this remains to be seen.

Despite Russia’s increasingly strict stance on social media and technological developments, the ability to fully control the internet remains far from Mr Putin’s reach. Andrei Soldatov, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said the restrictions on Twitter exemplify how Russia is struggling to limit web traffic as they are now “short of ideas”. With a population of nearly 146 million, Russia’s current DPI technology needs to improve massively if it wants to ban platforms completely. Russia dedicated two years trying to ban the messaging service Telegram, ultimately failing with its Russian audience growing by twenty million. Moreover, Russia’s stance raises questions around the right to freedom of expression. Hugh Williamson, director at Human Rights Watch, said that “curtailing freedom of expression online…violates the right” of Russians to express their views in peaceful ways. International law does allow for limits on this right but it must be done in line with necessity, proportionality and legal certainty. It is highly questionable whether such restrictions meet these requirements. Nonetheless, the recent restrictions on Twitter are not expected to cause a huge backlash given its Russian user base stands at around 700,000 – about 10% of Russian Youtube users. But the question remains as to how far Russia is willing to go in purging content that does not align with the state’s views. It seems that this will only continue into the future and beyond as social media continues to underpin modern society. 

Report written by Dan Furniss 

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