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Russia is trying to throttle Twitter

Natasha Lomas
·5-min read

In its latest strike against online content it doesn't control Russia is throttling Twitter. State agency Roskomnadzor said today it was taking the action in response to the social media not removing banned content, claiming it had identified more than 3,000 unlawful posts that have not been taken down -- and warning it could implement a total block on the service.

However the action by the comms regulator to slow down all Twitter's mobile traffic and 50% of desktop users in Russia appeared to have briefly taken down Roskomnadzor's own website earlier today.

Reports also circulated on social media that Russian government websites, including kremlin.ru, had been affected. At the time of writing these sites were accessible but earlier we were unable to access Roskomnadzor's site.

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The stand-off between the state agency and Twitter comes at a time when Russia is trying to clamp down on anti-corruption protestors who are supporters of the jailed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny -- who has, in recent weeks, called for demonstrators to take to the streets to ramp up pressure on the regime.

Roskomnadzor's statement makes no mention of the state's push to censor political opposition -- claiming only that the content it's throttling Twitter for failing to delete is material relating to minors committing suicide; child pornography; and drug use. Hence it also claims to be taking the action to "protect Russian citizens". However a draconian application of speech-chilling laws to try to silence political opposition are nothing new in Putin's Russia.

The Russian regime has sought to get content it doesn't like removed from foreign-based social media services a number of times in recent years, including -- as now -- resorting to technical means to limit access.

Most notoriously, back in 2018, an attempt by Russia to block access to the messaging service Telegram resulted in massive collateral damage to the local Internet as the block took down millions of (non-Telegram-related) IP addresses -- disrupting those other services.

Also in 2018 Facebook-owned Instagram complied with a Russian request to remove content posted by Navalny -- which earned it a shaming tweet from the now jailed politician.

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Although now behind bars in Russia -- Navalny was jailed in February, after Russia claimed he had violated the conditions of a suspended sentence -- the prominent Putin critic has continued to use his official Twitter account as a megaphone to denounce corruption and draw attention to the injustice of his detention, following his attempted poisoning last year (which has been linked to Russia's FSB).

Recent tweets from Navalny's account include amplification of an investigation by the German newspaper Bild into RT DE, the Russian state-controlled media outlet Russia Today's German channel -- which the newspaper accuses of espionage in German targeting Navalny and his associates (he was staying in a German hospital in Berlin at the time, recovering from the attempted poisoning).

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Slowing down access to Twitter is one way for Russia to try to put a lid on Navalny's critical output on the platform -- which also includes a recent retweet of a video claiming that Russian citizen's taxes were used this winter by Putin and his cronies to fund yachts, whiskey and a Maldivian vacation.

Navalny's account has also tweeted in recent hours to denounce his jailing by the Russian state following its attempt to poison him -- saying: "This situation is called attempted murder".

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At the time of writing Twitter had not responded to requests for comment on Roskomnadzor's action.

However last month, in a worrying development in India that's also related to anti-government protests (in that case by farmers who are seeking to reverse moves to deregulate the market), Twitter caved in to pressure from the government -- shuttering 500 accounts including some linked to the anti-government protests.

It also agreed to reduce the visibility of certain protest hashtags.

Update: Twitter has now sent us this statement:

We are aware of reports that Twitter is being intentionally slowed down broadly and indiscriminately in Russia due to apparent content removal concerns. Let us be clear – we have a zero-tolerance policy regarding child sexual exploitation, it is against the Twitter Rules to promote, glorify or encourage suicide and self harm, and we do not allow the use of Twitter for any unlawful behaviour or to further illegal activities, including the buying and selling of drugs. We remain committed to advocating for the Open Internet around the world and are deeply concerned by increased attempts to block and throttle online public conversation.

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