Mon, October 25, 2021

in-focus

Russia slows down Twitter over 'banned content'


Russia slowed down Twitter for hundreds of thousands of users on Wednesday after regulators accused the platform of failing to remove illegal content. It's the latest escalation between a government entity and an American social media company over ongoing debates shaping the boundaries of global communications.

The nation's communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, said Twitter has not removed content that encourages suicide among young people, as well as posts and links tied to child pornography and drug use. Thousands of tweets fall into these categories, Russian officials said.

Should Twitter continue to host the prohibited content, the regulator warned that it could move to block the site entirely. For now, though, agency officials said they would throttle Twitter access on all mobile devices, and on half of the users who log on through their computers.

The company has more than 690,000 active users in the country, according to a recent report from the research agency Brand Analytics. In Russia's messaging battle, the opposition lights up social media. Putin's allies plod along on state TV.

In a TV appearance Wednesday, the deputy chief of Roskomnadzor, Vadim Subbotin, said that Twitter stands out as the only social network that has "openly ignored the Russian authorities' demand to remove the banned content."

Twitter's content policies ban a host of illegal and abusive behavior, including child exploitation, the encouragement of self-harm and suicide, and facilitating drug transactions.

"We are aware of reports that Twitter is being intentionally slowed down broadly and indiscriminately in Russia due to apparent content removal concerns," Twitter said in a statement Wednesday, adding that it has a "zero-tolerance policy" regarding the illicit content. "We remain committed to advocating for the Open Internet around the world and deeply concerned by increased attempts to block and throttle online public conversation," the company said.

Moscow's move highlights the government's ongoing hostility toward social media platforms, which have helped galvanize young Russians protesting against President Vladimir Putin. In recent months, dissidents and anti-corruption activists have fueled waves of demonstrations across the country, powered in part by social networks including YouTube, TikTok and Instagram that provide a messaging alternative to state-backed Russian media.

Earlier this year, in a video address to the World Economic Forum, Putin took aim at social media companies in an implicit acknowledgment of the threat they pose to his grip on power. "These are no longer just economic giants - in some areas they are already de facto competing with states," he said.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his political allies have relied on social media platforms to amplify their criticisms of the government and to rally support for street protests.

Navalny, an outspoken Kremlin critic who was nearly killed in a nerve agent attack last year, was sentenced to more than two and a half years in prison for allegations that have drawn widespread condemnation from human rights groups for being politically motivated. Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced punitive sanctions against Russian government figures in connection with Navalny's poisoning.

The antagonism between authoritarian governments and social media also reflects generational differences in news consumption, experts say. Young people in Russia watch far less TV than older generations, and are less likely to adopt the views espoused on state television, challenging the portrayals of a self-reliant, trustworthy Russian government.

On a technical level, the Twitter slowdown appears to have interfered with broader Internet traffic in Russia, according to Doug Madory, the director of Internet analysis at Kentik, a network analytics company.

Over a roughly two-hour span Wednesday morning, Madory observed a 24% drop in Internet traffic volume to the Russian state telecom Rostelecom. "This disruption was caused by a flawed attempt to block Twitter's link-shortening service," Madory said.

But the blocking attempt interfered with Web traffic destined for other sites, including Reddit and Microsoft, Madory said.

On Twitter, Rostelecom apologized for the outages and said they were caused by a "global accident."

Maria Kolomychenko, technology editor of Meduza, an independent investigative news site, said that Russia's moves against Twitter were prompted by tweets about Navalny, and of posts containing detailed information about opposition actions and protests. Observers are interpreting the throttling as a test of Moscow's ability to block internet access, Kolomychenko said in an interview, with Twitter serving as an early target.

Andrei Soldatov, a fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis and a Russian investigative journalist, said on Twitter that Russia's slowdown was "partly a warning to global platforms," and a nationwide test of the government's censoring infrastructure. But the throttling also caused an outage of government websites, he said, and "failed on all fronts."

Published : March 11, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Hamza Shaban