Russia slows Twitter as Kremlin frets over social media

Twitter punished for ‘illegal content’ and sued over pro-Navalny protest posts

A man uses his mobile phone on Red Square in downtown Moscow on Wednesday. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP

A man uses his mobile phone on Red Square in downtown Moscow on Wednesday. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP

 

Russia has announced that it is slowing down Twitter services due to its alleged failure to remove “illegal content”, but denied that the move also disrupted access to Kremlin and government websites.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has complained about the growing influence of mostly US-based social media, and Moscow officials accuse them of spreading calls for children to join recent protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, did not mention such political content on Wednesday but said Twitter had ignored orders to remove posts containing dangerous material related to child pornography, drug use and suicide.

The regulator said it would not impede text-only posts on Twitter but would slow down access to photos and videos until the service deleted all offending content – and threatened to block it completely if it failed to comply.

“There is no desire to block anything, but it is quite reasonable to take measures to force these companies to adhere to our laws,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Disrupted

As the action against Twitter was unveiled, internet users in many parts of Russia and abroad found it impossible to access the websites of the Kremlin, Russia’s government and parliament, Roskomnadzor and other state agencies.

Officials blamed the problems on a fault at a telecommunications firm, but many Russians recalled how access to a slew of websites was disrupted when Roskomnadzor tried in vain to block the Telegram messaging application in 2018.

The regulator is already suing Twitter and other social media for allegedly failing “to prevent the dissemination of calls to minors to participate in unauthorised rallies”, which followed the arrest of Mr Navalny on his return to Russia after recovering abroad from a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia.

The anti-corruption campaigner also released a video report accusing Mr Putin of secretly building a €1 billion palace beside the Black Sea; it has been watched more than 114 million times on YouTube since January, deepening Kremlin concerns that online media are eroding the influence of state-controlled television.

‘Digital sovereignty’

Mr Putin said that same month that big technology firms were “in some areas already de facto competing with the state” and suggested they could be a threat to democratic institutions.

Senior Russian officials have also discussed how to strengthen the country’s “digital sovereignty” and cope with possible disconnection from the worldwide web.

The disruption to state websites came amid reports that the US could launch a cyber attack on Russia in response to its alleged hacking activity.

“Russia’s slowing down of Twitter caused the outage of government websites,” wrote Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov.

“What was meant to be partly a nationwide test of the sovereign ‘Runet’ infrastructure, partly a warning to global platforms (and partly a soothing message to Putin getting emotional), failed on all fronts.”