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Russia throttled Twitter to censor content — Here’s what happens next

On March 10, 2021, the Russian agency responsible for ensuring compliance with media and telecommunications laws, Roskomnadzor, announced that it would slow down Twitter on “100 percent of mobile services and 50 percent desktop services.” The reason Russia throttled Twitter: the social media company did not delete over 3,000 materials the authorities deemed unlawful. 

Shortly after the announcement, Russian users started reporting the slowing down of multiple websites and online services. Experts later confirmed that over 40,000 domains containing (Twitter’s shortened domain name) had been affected. When Russia throttled Twitter, it also slowed down the websites of key governmental institutions, including the Kremlin and the Russian State Duma, as well as major platforms and services including Yandex, Google, YouTube, and Qiwi.

Due to the lack of transparency, we don’t know what mechanisms authorities used when Russia throttled Twitter. Russian digital rights groups, including Internet Protection Society and Roskomsvoboda in Russia, suspect the throttling was implemented using a suite of network monitoring and censorship tools that has allegedly been successfully tested as a part of Russia’s implementation of its Sovereign Internet Law. The technology for implementing the law is reportedly provided by the Russian company RDP

Roskomnadzor tried to blame some of the site blockings on a fire at a cloud services firm OVHcloud in Strasbourg, France. In addition, Rostelecom, Russia’s leading long-distance telephony provider, issued a statement claiming that Russian government websites were down due to a failure in one of its data centers. Both tech companies and Russian civil society are suspicious and critical of these attempts to shift the blame for the throttling and the collateral damage it caused. 

History of shutdowns and blocking of social media in Russia

The move to throttle Twitter is part of a years-long crusade by Russia’s censors to force Twitter and other tech giants to comply with Roskomnadzor’s orders. Google, also a target of Russian censors, has been fined multiple times, most recently in December 2021 for three million rubles (about USD $41,000) under Article 13.40 of the Russian Administrative Code. In the same month, the Russian legislature upped the ante, passing a bill to increase company fines for defying censorship orders up to up to 20% of their yearly turnover in Russia. Earlier this month, Russian authorities also filed a lawsuit against Google, Facebook, Telegram, TikTok, and Twitter for failing to delete posts urging children to take part in the nationwide protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny. 

Russian authorities have also been blocking and fining social media companies for non-compliance with Russia’s data localization law, requiring companies to store the personal data of Russian citizens on Russian web servers. Russia blocked LinkedIn in 2016 for failure to comply under Article 15.5 of the Law on Information and in 2019, the Russian Magistrate Court ordered Twitter and Facebook to pay fines for violations under Article 19.7 of the Administrative Code

Russia also tried unsuccessfully to block Telegram and fined the company for non-compliance with the 2018 anti-terrorist legislation, also called the Yarovaya Law. This law requires telecom operators to store voice and messaging traffic and encryption keys from all user correspondence and provide them to Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, upon request. The attempt to block Telegram was similar to the recent throttling of Twitter — it also resulted in a massive collateral disruption of online services across the country.  

Russia doesn’t just slow down services that do not comply with censorship orders. It also has a history of throttling mobile internet during protests. Accordingly, between 2018 and 2019, the local government in Ingushetia shut down the mobile internet during peaceful protests against the border agreement with the neighboring Chechnya. In July-August 2019, Moscow authorities jammed mobile internet during local election protests. 

In 2019, some operators anonymously reported network disruptions associated with the testing of the DPI technology as a part of implementation of the Sovereign Internet Law in the Ural region of Russia. 

Is all of this legal? Not under international human rights law

Twitter and others affected by the throttling have a right to challenge Roskomnadzor’s decision in Russian courts. The Russian attorney Stanislav Seleznyev has already asked the Prosecutor General to review whether Roskomnadzor’s actions, which resulted in “users in Russia and beyond its borders experiencing difficulties with accessing official websites of Russian government bodies, banks, paying systems, and telecommunication services operators,” were lawful.  

However, the chances of Russian authorities prioritizing the protection of users’ right to freedom of expression and access to information are low. While the Russian Constitution guarantees the right to seek and impart information and freedom of speech, the Russian Law on Information allows restricting content the government deems unlawful. The Sovereign Internet Law, recently amended to include administrative penalties for non-compliance, also contains provisions allowing Roskomnadzor to eliminate online threats through “changing the routes of telecommunication messages” and “changing the configuration of communications.”

Russian courts have also been siding with Russian authorities on social media blockings and internet shutdowns. In the LinkedIn case, a Moscow court upheld the decision of the lower court, which had ordered Roskomnadzor to enter LinkedIn domain names, website page addresses, and IP addresses in a register of entities violating Russian data protection law, making the company subject to subsequent blocking. 

The Magas regional court of Ingushetia also rejected a legal complaint lodged by Ingushetia resident Murad Khazbiyev against government-ordered internet shutdowns, ruling that the shutdowns were in accordance with the Article 64 of the Russian Law on Communication, which requires telecommunication operators to assist law enforcement in operational-investigative activities.

However, the international human rights law is very clear that internet shutdowns and indiscriminate website blocking are not permitted. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights (ECrHR) has ruled in a series of decisions, including in Vladimir Kharitonov v. Russia and OOO Flavus and Others v. Russia, that broad, collateral blocking of websites is an extreme and disproportionate measure that violates freedom of expression and the right to an effective remedy (Articles 10 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights). We expect to see more rulings from the ECrHR on these issues, as last year it communicated the case of blocking and fining of Telegram in Telegram v. Russia and accepted the complaint by Murad Khazbiyev challenging the shutdowns in Ingushetia. 

What’s next? Civil society braces for more censorship, internet shutdowns

Russian authorities are still slowing Twitter and many other websites, including government sites, for some users. Roskomnadzor has threatened to block Twitter entirely if it does not comply with Russian laws. Whether Russian authorities will act on this threat or succeed in implementing the blocking without further wrecking Russia’s internet infrastructure remains to be seen. Russian users and digital rights activists are adapting to the growing censorship by creating tools to test the loading speed of Twitter and related resources, and are using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other circumvention tools and techniques to access blocked online resources.

Regardless of what happens to Twitter, we expect Russian authorities to continue their attempts to restrict internet access and freedom of speech. On September 19, 2021, Russia will hold its legislative elections. Due to the United Russia ruling party’s historically low ratings with the public, experts say the current government cannot hold on to power without perpetrating mass scale election fraud. This increases the potential for shutdowns and website blockings during the elections and any associated protests. Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition will be monitoring the situation in Russia and beyond through our 2021 Election Watch project.  If you are in Russia, you can report shutdowns via [email protected] or by using our Shutdown Stories form, which is now available in Russian.