The Kremlin’s decision to block international social media platforms exemplifies a burgeoning global censorship playbook.
Allie Funk is a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House, a non-partisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. Grant Baker is a research associate for technology and democracy at Freedom House.
Since the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal and brazen invasion of Ukraine, escalating tensions between American social media platforms and the Russian government have reached a fever pitch. In a series of egregious moves last week, the government blocked Facebook and Twitter and cracked down on a range of news websites. The order to bar Russians from using these platforms represents both an unprecedented escalation of censorship in the country and an obvious next step in the Kremlin’s march toward cyber sovereignty.
For years now, the Russian government has sought to erect its own digital borders in cyberspace, allowing it to control the online information environment and insulate residents from the global internet. Authorities had traditionally opted for a whack-a-mole strategy using restrictive laws and direct pressure to compel companies to censor content. For example, the federal regulator Roskomnadzor attempted to block Telegram from 2018 to 2020 because the company refused to provide encryption keys to authorities, but seemingly lacked the technical know-how to effectively pull it off. In March 2021, Roskomnadzor throttled Twitter’s traffic to pressure the company to remove “prohibited” speech, a euphemism used in this instance to refer to protest-related speech and a wide swath of other content. Then amid legislative elections in September, Apple and Google capitulated to government demands to remove opposition figure Aleksey Navalny’s Smart Voting app from their respective app stores. The companies’ decisions came after local employees faced direct threats and armed men reportedly showed up at Google’s offices in Moscow.
Now, Russia has finally flipped the switch. In the past two weeks, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and other tech companies took swift and dramatic actions to limit the reach of the state’s propaganda machine on their platforms. Both Facebook and Wikipedia also refused to acquiesce to government demands to remove war-related content. When platforms resist a state’s attempt to exert authority over their content moderation, the government can simply retaliate by completely blocking the sites in an effort to bully them into submission.
The bans on Facebook and Twitter dangerously undermine free expression and access to information. Given the Russian government’s extensive efforts to limit press freedom, severing access to these platforms may force users in the country to be more reliant on government propaganda. The bans also limit people’s ability to organize against the invasion of Ukraine and document police brutality and arbitrary detentions amidst anti-war protests.
Moreover, although Facebook and Twitter occupy only a portion of the country’s social media market, their user base is more global than those of the popular Russian platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. While Facebook, Twitter, and other international companies have faced global scrutiny over not effectively addressing harmful content, blocking these platforms disconnects Russians from like-minded people around the world who are rallying against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Facebook and Twitter also serve as important tools for Russian civil society and activists – communities which the Kremlin is particularly eager to silence.
In comparison, Russian tech companies are more susceptible to government demands for censorship, including because they are required to comply with repressive domestic laws to store data in-country and have local offices. Some are also under the direct control of Putin’s allies. For example, Yandex, the most popular search engine in the country, has been accused of hiding coverage of the war from its homepage. Former employees have also alleged how the company has heeded government advice on covering controversial topics. Moreover, the parent company of VKontakte and Odnoklassniki is now owned by a state-run company controlled by Putin allies and Gazprom-Media, which is controlled by a former Roskomnadzor chief.
The Kremlin is far from alone in seeking to control access to these platforms. According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report, at least 21 states blocked social media platforms over the past year alone. In Nigeria, for example, Twitter was blocked between June 2021 and January 2022, only coming back online after the company agreed to a slew of conditions from the government, including establishing an in-country presence that authorities can leverage to coerce the platform into complying with politicized demands for censorship and surveillance in the future. Two years ago, Vietnamese state-owned telecom companies restricted access to Facebook for two months until the company agreed to remove what the government deemed “antistate” content.
Tech companies bear a responsibility to protect the rights of their users and foster a reliable and diverse information space. Companies should be prepared to use all available channels to resist repressive demands for censorship, including by shouldering fines, leveraging business interests, and challenging such demands in courts. They should also continue to demonetize and limit the amplification of state propaganda by adjusting their recommendation and advertising systems in a transparent, evenly applied, and rights-respecting manner. In many countries where the state exerts outsized control over the information space, social media serves as a critically important avenue for expressing opinions, accessing reliable information, documenting rights abuses, and organizing for political and social change.
The clash between the private sector and governments shows no signs of abating. The Kremlin’s hastened advance toward cyber sovereignty illustrates how internet users will continue to pay the price.