Russia's Twitter Slowdown

Abroad, Russia is known For top-notch cyber operations. Domestically, its efforts have been scattershot.

On March 10, Russia's technology and communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, announced it was slowing down access to Twitter, and threatened to fully block the site, if Twitter did not comply with Russian Internet laws. 

Their action came weeks after Roskomnadzor warned social media platforms to take down content which they said was encouraging children to take part in "unauthorized protests." This time, Russia claimed that Twitter was not removing "illegal content" fast enough, like child pornography and suicide.

The government initially attempted to slow Twitter by blocking the Twitter link shortener "t.co," which also blocked sites with "t.co" in them:

Hours later, websites for the Kremlin and the State Duma went down, and some users said they couldn't access major sites like Google. The Russian government insisted that the Twitter slowdown and the government site failures were not connected. Through all this, some Russian users accessed Twitter without problems.

"What was meant to be partly a nationwide test of a sovereign Runet [Russian Internet] infrastructure, partly a warning to global platforms, (and partly a soothing message to Putin getting emotional), failed on all fronts," tweeted Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and author of "The Red Web: Russia's Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries."

While Russia passed laws in 2019 allowing for a "kill switch" to disconnect itself from the global Internet, its technical abilities to follow through and wall itself off from the global Internet are so far unproven. If the Twitter slowdown was a test for doing this, it failed. 

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Russia has so far not engaged in a blanket ban against global platforms as China has. However, it has engaged in selective repression in various ways. On an individual level, Sergei Smirnov, the editor-in-chief of the independent media outlet Mediazona, was jailed for 15 days last month for retweeting a Twitter meme, which happened to include the date and time of a protest for Navalny. Authorities said that he was jailed for calling for participation in an unauthorized protest -- which he didn't even go to. On a local level, Russian authorities have been able to shut down mobile Internet for weeks, in the restive Muslim-majority republic of Ingushetia.

So far, authorities have refused to outright block a bigger social media platform, but Russia has banned LinkedIn since 2016 because the parent company, Microsoft, refused to store data inside Russia. Even so, LinkedIn users have grown in Russia; it can be accessed through a virtual private network (VPN).

Previous attempts to control platforms have failed spectacularly. In 2018, Roskomnadzor tried to block Telegram, the encrypted-messaging app. The agency blocked millions of IP addresses from Amazon and Google's cloud services, and many Russians were able to access the app anyway. In 2020, the regulator announced it was giving up trying to control it.

With protests this year against the government organized by allies of Aleksei Navalny and Duma elections coming this September, the government is sensing that global tech platforms could be threatening. 

 “It is easy to shut down the centre of a city and fill it with riot police, but it is much harder to control people on TikTok,” a senior Kremlin official told the Financial Times. “We have not worked that out yet.”

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