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Russia's Campaign Against Twitter Faces Mixed Chances Of Success, IT Experts Say

In this 2019 cartoon by artist Sergei Elkin for RFE/RL's Russian Service, a caricature of a Russian police officer chases an iconic Russian bear supporting "a free Internet."
In this 2019 cartoon by artist Sergei Elkin for RFE/RL's Russian Service, a caricature of a Russian police officer chases an iconic Russian bear supporting "a free Internet."

Critics have condemned Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor’s threat to block U.S. social network Twitter as an assault on freedom of speech ahead of Russia’s September 2021 national elections, but Russian Internet experts interviewed by Current Time question how effective any such ban would be. Nonetheless, they caution, risks for Twitter and other networks do exist.

On March 10, Roskomnadzor began to delay video and photo uploads to Twitter in response to what it asserts is the platform’s failure to remove 3,168 posted items including child pornography, details about how to use narcotics, and appeals to children to commit suicide.

Six days later, the agency, which oversees a registry of black-listed sites, warned it would ban Twitter altogether by April 16 if the platform does not remove this content.

The Twitter slowdown marked the first nationwide use of the technology behind Russia’s so-called “sovereign Internet,” noted Vladislav Zdolnikov, founder of the Red Shield Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. Since 2019, Russia’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been required by law to install Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) filters that block content banned by the government.

But, so far, Roskomnadzor’s use of this technology has not led to a clear win for the government, some Internet specialists believe.

When the slowdown began, the websites of the Kremlin, parliament, some state bodies, and Roskomnadzor itself went offline. The Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media attributed these crashes to a malfunction at government-controlled Rostelecom, the country’s main ISP.

For IT expert Anton Merkurov, a critic of President Vladimir Putin’s administration, the outages proved that officials “are shooting themselves in the foot” by trying to block Twitter content.

The “terrible scandal” that erupted over the government’s actions essentially neutralized Roskomnadzor’s technical gains against Twitter, agreed Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who has researched Russia’s Internet surveillance techniques extensively.

One scoffer posted on Roskomnadzor’s Twitter account that he could not read the agency’s Twitter warning because of the slowdown. On Russia’s more popular social-media outlet V Kontakte (In Contact), another user asked the regulator what steps it will take to protect Russians against Roskomnadzor’s own influence.

In a March 10 interview with Current Time, however, the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s Information Policy Committee, Aleksandr Yushchenko, emphasized that Roskomnadzor’s measures were “normal” and “preventative” -- something that gives Russia “a lever of influence” over a private company that “absolutely doesn’t give a damn about the laws of this or that country.”

The government claims that it has not received a response to “over 28,000” demands sent to Twitter about removing “illegal” content.

Roskomnadzor stated that its retaliation against Twitter, which has about 13 million users in Russia, would affect all mobile devices and half of all desktop units, but Merkurov questions the actual extent of the slowdown's “influence.” Many of Twitter’s Russia-based users have encountered no encumbrances at all, he claimed.

The company’s reliance on various servers in Russia for Akamai Technologies’ global Content Delivery Network facilitated that access, reported the independent news site Meduza. Apparently, Roskomnadzor has not identified all these Akamai servers.

Nor do all Russian ISPs – in particular, smaller, regional providers -- have DPI technology, an unnamed Internet “market participant” commented to the business news site Vedomosti.

Even if Roskomnadzor overcomes such obstacles, Merkurov projects that Russians will simply rely on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) – encrypted, private Internet connections that piggyback on public networks – to get past any Twitter ban.

Russians used VPNs and proxy servers en masse to access the popular messaging app Telegram during its 2018-2020 ban, and still use VPNs to reach the blocked U.S. professional networking site LinkedIn.

But Twitter may find the VPN escape route problematic, some observers believe.

Overall, cautioned VPN founder Zdolnikov, Twitter “doesn’t have the political will” to spend “an enormous amount of money” on funding VPNs like Telegram did, and also does not have “enough unique know-how” about ways to circumvent blocks on its service.

Roskomnadzor officials “know perfectly well that Twitter won’t fight back,” and, as a result, are not likely to back down as they did on Telegram, he predicted.

Aleksandr Khinshtein, head of parliament’s Information Policy Committee, told the Russian legislature’s Parlamentskaya Gazeta (Parliamentary Newspaper) on March 18 that Russia has learned from its Telegram experience, and now has the technology to restrict or block access to VPNs.

As yet, Twitter, based in San Francisco, has not elaborated about how it will respond to Roskomnadzor. It stated on March 10 that it has a “zero-tolerance policy” toward the sexual exploitation of children and that its rules forbid the other content types cited by the Russian regulator, Reuters reported. The service described itself as “deeply concerned by increased attempts to block and throttle online public conversation.”

On March 17, the independent Russian news site MBKh Media announced that Twitter had alerted it about a Roskomnadzor demand that the site’s Twitter account be deleted. The agency alleges that MBKh Media published information from the Open Russia organization, a banned advocate of democratic reforms.

To date, Twitter has not complied with Roskomnadzor’s request.

For MBKh Media Editor-in-Chief Viktoria Kutsyllo, Twitter’s alert signals that “networks, unlike ISPs, are not yet lying down, with their paws up, under this state-imposed roller” of censorship.

“Our leadership is against the Internet because the Internet is freedom, and they’re losing on the Internet, and they hate freedom,” opposition politician Leonid Gozman contended on March 10.

Yushchenko, however, rejected criticism that Roskomnadzor has targeted Twitter, a popular platform for government critics like jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, to stifle dissenting views ahead of September’s parliamentary and regional elections.

Russia’s only aim, he alleged, is to foster a “normal” and “constructive” dialogue between Twitter and government bodies that enforce the law.

IT entrepreneur Zdolnikov believes, though, that Roskomnadzor’s ultimate target is not Twitter, but larger platforms like Google and its video-sharing service, YouTube, another influential forum for government opponents like Navalny. YouTube currently ranks as Russia's most widely used social network, according to market data hub Statista.

Investigative journalist Soldatov sees little risk to YouTube from Roskomnadzor, however. Expanding the slowdown to YouTube or threatening a blockade likely would prove “more complicated” than with Twitter, he conjectured.

“Google spent many years and resources on capacity-building on Russia’s territory and, in general, it’s now already practically part of the Russian Internet’s infrastructure,” Soldatov said.

In December 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia could block global platforms when it had created alternatives, but, as yet, Russia has no alternative to YouTube.

The powerful companies, owner of VKontakte, and Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of state-run energy giant Gazprom, plan to take on that challenge, but developing a workable, popular alternative to YouTube will take time.

“Until then, I think that YouTube can feel pretty relaxed,” Soldatov said.

Russia’s parliament, however, may not. On March 4, President Vladimir Putin denounced the Internet for supposedly enticing children into unauthorized opposition protests, drug abuse, prostitution, and pornography. TV outlets, still the source of most Russians’ news, now routinely lecture viewers about “deadly dangerous” social media.

Against that backdrop, the Duma likely will continue trying to strengthen the so-called RuNet, or Russian Internet, predicted Soldatov.

Yushchenko conceded that, if requested, parliament will back any Roskomnadzor decision to block Facebook and YouTube as well as Twitter.

Ultimately, the regulator is “acting in the interests of the state,” he said.

-With additional reporting from AP, Forbes, and Interfax