Russia’s attempt to control Western social media

Andrei Zakharov and Ksenia Churmanova
BBC Russian

Image source, Getty Images
Caption for the image

Vladimir Putin inspects the iPhone

Google and Meta are facing multi-million dollar fines for not deleting content the Russian government considers unlawful. However, a closer look at court documents reveals that these posts often relate to protests against Alexei Navalny who is currently in jail.

Siberian Viking, a Russian poet wrote a caricature in summer 2018 on Facebook. It featured the Russian’s double-headed eagle, with its heads being replaced by the faces of Dmitri Madvedev and President Vladimir Putin.

A short poem was also included, in which it claimed that the eagle was greedier than other birds, was more naive, and was capable of surveillance with only four eyes. The poem ended with an emotion cry, “When will Russians wake up to end this contagion?”

Facebook had to take down the Russian government’s post due to its “blatant disrespect for the Russian Federation, the constitution, and the president”. Facebook didn’t comply with the request and was subject to more than 60 lawsuits in Russia against Western social networks this year. The fines exceeded $2m.

The exact number of fines paid is not known. However, these cases show the difficulties of operating in countries that restrict freedom of speech and activity. The most notable example is the June ruling by the Anti-Corruption Foundation led by Alexei Navalny (an opposition leader) declaring the Anti-Corruption Foundation to be an “extremist” organization. It’s on par with the Taliban and the Islamic State.

Andrei Lipov from Roskomnadzor is the head media regulator. He stated that social media companies must find and eliminate “the most hazardous things”. This he described in an interview to Kommersant Newspaper as “child pornography”, suicide, drugs and extremism.

A close look at 600 posts that were included in the court proceedings against Google Facebook Instagram Twitter, Instagram and Facebook reveals that nineteen of these are related to child abuse or drug use, while 12 relate to suicide. The majority of these posts call for people to visit pro-Navalny demonstrations.

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Sarkis Darbinian is a legal expert from Roskomsvoboda, which advocates freedom-of-speech pressure groups Roskomnadzor and the Kremlin. He commented on the importance of child protection being included in official statements and said: “To explain why this struggle was necessary, they exploit tears from a child.”

Roskomnadzor the media regulator didn’t reply to BBC’s request to comment. But President Putin’s press spokesperson has stated previously that any actions taken against social networking companies is not censorship. It’s simply an attempt to enforce Russian law.

Social media companies have been under pressure since 2015 when a law was passed requiring them to keep the personal information of Russian users. The government can also fine or shut them down if they fail to do so. LinkedIn was shut down in 2016, because no Western company has complied. Google, Meta and Twitter were collectively fined over $600,000.

In 2016, Russian governments began to request that Google remove YouTube videos and block search results. According to Google’s transparency report, the company has had more requests from Russia over the past 10 years than any other country combined. Google claims that a third relate to national security.

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Google, like other Western corporations, will comply with certain Russian requests.

The efforts to stop the spread of unfavorable information via social media were intensified in the early 2021 after Alexei Navalny returned to Russia from Germany. He had previously been admitted to a hospital for treatment of poisoning using the chemical weapon Novichok.

Navalny was quickly arrested. There were unconstitutional protests in Moscow, St Petersburg, and other cities. These demonstrations were widely publicized on social media.

Roskomnadzor was furious at the incident. They were immediately removed from VKontakte or (the third most used social network in Russia), which was then owned by Alisher Ustanov, an oligarch and former shareholder of Arsenal football Club.

Roskomnadzor began to take them to court, and eventually fining them.

The next thing it did was slow down Twitter traffic in March to protest its refusal of deleting these posts and others. Particularly, loading videos and pictures became more difficult.

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It persuaded Apple and Google later that year to delete a tactical vote app from their shops. The app was intended to encourage Navalny sympathisers, to come together behind a single candidate for local elections.

Ivan Zhdanov was the head of Navalny‚Äôs group and denounced both companies. He called it “a shameful act de political censorship”“.

Later, he tweeted a portion of an Apple letter. It pointed out that the letter was from prosecutors and stated that the app had been illegal. Escalating illegal “interference” in electionsRoskomnadzor was the media regulator and had previously warned the company about its promotion of an “extremist group”.

BBC wanted to interview Apple, Google Meta, Twitter and Meta. But Twitter and Google declined to comment. Apple and Meta also didn’t reply.

Roskomnadzor has had some success with the removal of posts and in using voting apps.

The company partially reversed some of its actions to slow Twitter down in May by claiming it had deleted 91% from a 5,900-tweet list. Images and videos continue loading slowly on Twitter now that they are only available on mobile devices.

Twitter tweets deleted by Twitter after being penalized for not doing so are usually only visible to Russian users.

Court documents mention one tweet as being a quote-tweet from Alexei in January. It relayed information on a pro-Navalny demonstration planned for Saturday in Nizhny Novgorod, a city located east of Moscow, and included details about the protest.

Alexei carefully chose his words, calling the area “the place you shouldn’t be going to” because the authorities in the city hadn’t given their approval. Alexei added that “Putin doesn’t really want you to go there. So don’t!”

However, the irony was not enough to keep Roskomnadzor from taking Twitter to court. Twitter ultimately deleted the tweet.

Russian users now have a new tweet that replaces the original one. An English message explains that the Russian message was withheld due to legal demands.

However, it is also common to see the tweet elsewhere in the world.

Alexei said that he didn’t know his tweet had been withdrawn and only realized it when he got in touch with the BBC. The original protest tweet – which he retweeted — was visible, he said.

Alexander, however, was a local activist who lives in Kostroma north-west Moscow. His tweet regarding a Navalny protest did not get any response. Although his article on the subject vanished also, Facebook did contact him to let them know that the authorities had reported the matter, but they ultimately didn’t remove the message.

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Meta, which is the parent company to Instagram and Facebook, can delete certain content.

It removed over 1,800 content from Instagram and Facebook during the first half 2021. This was at Russian officials’ request. Half of the items were classified as belonging to “extremism” in its transparency report. The company didn’t specify how often it refused requests from the government.

Google’s transparency reports also note that the company has removed search results and YouTube videos following Russian objections. It now responds to more requests than it did in the past. Only 8% rejected requests in 2021’s first half, which is down from 50% during the same period in 2019

The “Sovereign Internet”

  • Andrei Lipov is the 42-year old head of Roskomnadzor. He was one of the authors for the “sovereign web” policy. It aims to create an independent Russian internet and keep it from being connected to outside.
  • The 2019 version of the system was created using Deep Packet Inspection, a technique that examines data moving through the internet.
  • This tool enabled Twitter to slow down in March 2021

Russia can block operations by social media companies using technical tools, as well as laws that may provide an explanation.

You can legally block them for not keeping Russian user’s personal data or refusing delete any harmful content. And, starting in next year, it is possible to stop them because they do not have an office in Russia. Google is the only company that has one, though it describes it more as an “legal entity” than an office.

YouTube could be blocked if it isn’t shut down by the Kremlin-funded RT News outlet in Germany.

Russia introduced additional penalties at the end last year for failing to remove illegal content. In court proceedings due to be held on 24/12/12, both Google and Meta could face up to 10% in fines in Russia.

Kommersant heard from Andrei Lipov Roskomnadzor boss, “This motivates them.” We have not yet used these fines but will.

Meta has not yet disclosed Russian revenue. However, Google’s previous year in Russia was at least $1bn. That opens up the possibility of a $100m fine.

An ex-Roskomnadzor official who requested anonymity told BBC that the new fines allow the Russian authorities hit Western companies wherever it hurts. They will, he claims.


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