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Russia Slows Twitter In Blunt Warning To U.S.-Based Social Media Platforms

A man uses a tablet device in a subway train in Moscow in 2019. Russia's Internet regulatory agency announced it is slowing Twitter because the company has ignored requests to remove content harmful to children.
Pavel Golovkin
A man uses a tablet device in a subway train in Moscow in 2019. Russia's Internet regulatory agency announced it is slowing Twitter because the company has ignored requests to remove content harmful to children.

MOSCOW - The Kremlin is threatening to block Twitter in Russia as President Vladimir Putin seeks to rein in the influence of social media.

In a statement, Russia's Internet regulatory agency, Roskomnadzor, said that for now it will be slowing down Twitter service because the company has allegedly ignored requests to take down material harmful to children.

Social media companies, regardless of country of origin, are coming under increasing scrutiny by the Kremlin, which views them as rivals to the dominant state-run news outlets. In January, Roskomnadzor said social media - including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Russia's VKontakte - faced fines for inciting minors to take part in unauthorized rallies demanding the release of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Twitter's presence in Russia is relatively small, with just 3% of respondents in a recent poll saying they use the microblog. But the head of Navalny's Moscow office, Oleg Stepanov, tweeted that the Twitter slowdown was just the start of a "large-scale offensive" by authorities to assert control over - and ultimately block - social media.

Andrei Svintsov, a member of the committee on informational policy in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, told a Moscow radio station that Twitter was targeted exactly because it's not widely used in Russia and the slowdown will therefore have a minimal impact.

"Of course it will serve as an example to all the others who don't observe Russian legislation," Svintsov said.

Roskomnadzor claimed that since 2017, Twitter disregarded more than 28,000 requests to delete content that encourages minors to commit suicide, contains child pornography or provides information on drug use. If Twitter fails to comply, the agency said, it could be blocked in Russia.

Later, the agency clarified that the slowdown would affect photo and video content but not text.

In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson said the content which Roskomnadzor claims appears on the platform is not permitted under the company's rules.

"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 statement said.

The Kremlin has repeatedly used the protection of minors as a pretext to limit free expression. At a meeting with young people last week, Putin said that tech companies had to follow the "moral laws of our society" — or Russian society would collapse.

In December, Putin signed a law that would let the Russian government block social media that "censor" Russian news outlets. This week, the speaker of the Duma said new laws were necessary to guarantee the country's "digital sovereignty."

A complete ban on a social media platform would not be unprecedented. In 2016, the authorities blocked LinkedIn, the U.S.-based platform for professional networking, for not storing data on Russian citizens on Russia-based servers, as stipulated by law.

But the Russian government's years-long efforts to block the messaging app Telegram failed because of technical difficulties.

Putin's spokesman told reporters that the authorities had gained valuable experience trying to shut down Telegram.

Not long after the Twitter slowdown was announced, a number of government websites, including the Kremlin's, went down.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian Internet with the Center for European Policy Analysis, says that the Twitter slowdown accidentally caused the sites to go down as authorities were testing technology to limit Internet access.

The Ministry of Digital Development blamed the outage on technical issues unrelated to the Twitter slowdown.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.