Facebook and Twitter may face being blocked entirely in Russia, Rain TV reported yesterday. Both social networking sites refused to comply with further demands from Russia’s federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor to block pages of supporters of opposition figure Alexei Navalny. According to Rain TV, sources at both social networking corporations understand that they may be completely blocked and are “ready for such a development”.
In a move described by former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul as a “horrible precedent”, Facebook appears to have caved under pressure from the Russian state last week, as it apparently blocked access to a protest page on the website. The decision came after Roskomnadzor asked Facebook to block the page, which it claimed violated the law banning “unauthorised mass events” in the country.
The page, called “Public gathering to discuss the verdict”, was set up on Friday after Russian prosecutors recommended that Navalny be sent to prison for 10 years for a controversial embezzlement case which many claim is politically motivated. The Facebook page, which invited people to attend a rally in support of Navalny on 15 January 2015, when the verdict of the case will be announced, had over 12,000 people click “attending” by Saturday afternoon. But later on that day users complained that the page had become inaccessible in Russia.
Since then, a second “back-up” page has been launched on Facebook, on which over 29,000 people had clicked “attending” by Tuesday morning. A public document from Facebook, which lists the number of requests from governments for it to block access to content, reveals that the site blocked 29 pieces of content from Russia at the request of Russian authorities in the first six months of 2014.
In May, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke out against the possibility that Twitter and Facebook could be banned in Russia, after deputy head of Roskomnadzor Maxim Ksensov stated that Twitter’s repeated refusal to agree to the watchdog’s demands created conditions which made “blocking the service in Russia almost inevitable”. Although Ksensov later back-pedalled on his remarks, with Medvedev noting that the sites would not be blocked and “some officials in charge of the industry’s development should use their brains from time to time”, last week’s move has caused concern that the Russian government’s crackdown on information distribution in the country is reaching new levels.
Navalny, a lawyer and opposition figure, came to prominence in 2011 when he became the voice of the opposition during the anti-Putin protests that started in December 2011. A dedicated blogger, Navalny’s page on LiveJournal was blocked in Russia by Roskomnadzor, after it was added to a register of banned sites in March this year accused of publishing extremist material.