(HRW) – This week, Russia’s state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, issued a warning to Twitter, giving it 24 hours to remove allegedly unlawful content – the Twitter account of opposition group Open Russia, led by Russian former oil tycoon and ardent Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Should Twitter disobey, the notice warns, it may be blocked in Russia. YouTube received an almost identical warning , also threatening them with a Russia-wide ban.
Russia has adopted a plethora of repressive laws restricting online expression in recent years. The most recent one empowered the Prosecutor General’s office to block content shared by foreign “undesirable” organizations as well as websites disseminating materials from these organizations. Since 2015, Russian authorities have designated 11 groups as “undesirable”, mostly US donor groups, adding the UK-registered Open Russia and affiliated groups to the list in April.
On December 11, Roskomnadzor, acting on orders of the Prosecutor General’s office, blocked Open Russia’s website and several other affiliated sources. On December 12 and 13, official requests to Twitter, YouTube, and Odnoklassniki, a Russian social media platform, to block their accounts followed. So far, only Odnoklassniki complied and blocked Open Russia’s page. Roskomnadzor said action to block Twitter and YouTube is postponed pending “negotiations.”
Russia has made similar threats in the past, threatening to block Telegram messenger service and Facebook. Some of the laws Russia adopted in recent years – such as one requiring all data on Russia users to be stored in Russia, or the law which effectively requires companies to hand over encryption keys to security services – are nearly impossible to implement on a technical level, not to mention detrimental to free expression.
So far, Russian authorities have mostly stopped short of implementing these threats. Although Russia blocked LinkedIn, as well as several messaging apps for non-compliance, the scale of blocking Facebook or Twitter is far greater and the fallout very different. One thing is for certain: Russia’s internet laws are designed to stifle free speech, and can and are being used to go after government critics or online debate on certain topics. And to make it even easier for the authorities, the laws enable them to block anything they want, any time they want – without the hassle of getting a court order.