MOSCOW - Russia’s Internet regulatory body, Roskomnadzor, announced it had slowed down Twitter’s ability to function in Russia effective Wednesday — part of what authorities said was an initial penalty for the American social media platform’s failure to delete illegal content inside the country.
According to a statement posted on Roskomnadzor’s website, 100 percent of mobile devices and 50 percent of stationary devices using Twitter would face a disruption in service in an effort to “protect Russian citizens.”
"The mechanism envisions slowing down the transfer of photo and video content without any limitations on text messages. Users will be able to exchange messages freely,” Roskomnadzor official Vadim Subbotin later clarified in comments to reporters.
Subbotin added the restrictions would remain in place until Twitter complied with the request to remove offending content.
Failure to do so, added Subbotin, could lead to a full blockage of Twitter inside the country.
In its statement, Roskomnadzor said Twitter had failed to remove 3,168 tweets promoting drug use, child pornography, and teenage suicide and ignored "over 28,000 initial and repeated requests" to address content violations.
There was no immediate comment from Twitter about the new restrictions.
“Nobody has any desire to block anything,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov when asked about the issue in his daily call with journalists.
“But taking measures that force the company to fulfill our laws is completely justifiable.”
President Vladimir Putin had criticized the internet for preying on Russian youth during a meeting with young volunteers last week.
“We all unfortunately know what the internet is and how it’s used to spread entirely unacceptable content,” said Putin, who argued the Web should be bound by “moral laws.”
Kremlin(ru) goes dark
The moves against Twitter were quickly followed by news that a series of key Russian government websites — including the Kremlin’s main portal — were inaccessible to users.
Other state websites that appeared to experience problems included the Interior Ministry, Russia’s Federal Council and Duma, the Ministry of Economic Development and even Roskomnadzor — the Internet governing body that announced the penalties against Twitter to begin with.
Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development later clarified the problems had nothing to do with the actions against Twitter but were caused by technical issues at the state service provider Rostelecom.
Yet it was an explanation that did little to tame speculation that something larger was unfolding online.
The coming cyberwar?
The move against Twitter marked the latest in a simmering battle between Russia’s government and global tech companies.
The Kremlin has alleged that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are platforms that promote content supportive of Russia’s opposition while penalizing Russian state media content.
Earlier this month, Russia announced it was suing Twitter and four other global tech companies for failing to delete posts expressing support for protests against the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
Artem Kozlyuk of the Internet rights advocacy group RoskomSvoboda called the government’s concerns about Twitter’s impact on the morality of Russian youth “nothing more than a cover.”
“The real goal is to force western social media companies to limit access to political content — anything to do with calling people out to protest or visit an opposition website,” Kozlyuk told VOA. “If Twitter or any of the other companies complied, they’d find the objections of the Russian authorities suddenly disappear.”
Meanwhile, the problems with Russian government websites follow reports the Biden administration was preparing a cyber response —- both overt and covert — to what it insists is the Kremlin’s responsibility for the massive SolarWinds hack of U.S. government agency websites in 2020.
Concerns over cyberattacks, and their fallout, have been a contentious aspect of the U.S.-Russian relationship since the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign — when the U.S. accused Russia of using cyber tools to interfere in the race.
In 2019, Russia passed a law in defense of a "sovereign internet” — a measure that includes a “kill switch” intended to isolate Russian infrastructure from the worldwide web, if attacked.
Internet activists argue the action is just the latest in a series of laws intended to tighten government control of the internet and clamp down on free speech.
But experts have long questioned whether Russia’s internet governing body was capable of carrying out its threats to block big tech or the internet as a whole.
In 2019, Roskomnadzor was widely mocked for botching its efforts to block the social message app Telegram. The effort to kill the service in Russia ended up disrupting service for hundreds of websites and commercial services, even as the app continued to function.
On Wednesday, analysts suggested a similar dynamic was at play in the new fight between Russian censors and Twitter.
“Russia's slowing down of Twitter caused the outage of government websites,” explained Andrei Soldatov, a leading expert on Russian cybersecurity in a post to social media.
“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.”
As if to underline that fact, his message was posted to…where else? Twitter.
Russia's slowing down of Twitter caused the outage of govt websites.— Andrei Soldatov (@AndreiSoldatov) March 10, 2021
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.