Following demands that Twitter should remove “prohibited” content or face blocking in Russia, the authorities are warning that if Facebook and YouTube don’t clean up their acts too, they could face similar measures. Those thinking of deploying VPNs to circumvent blocking are also on notice, since the government believes it has the necessary tools to thwart evasive technological action.
So-called “prohibited content” covers a broad spectrum of material, from pirated movies and TV shows to broadly defined terrorist material, the promotion of illicit drugs, and the abuse of minors. And according to Russian telecoms watchdog Roskomndazor, all of these things and more are made available by users of Twitter.
After Being Punished By Throttling, Twitter Faced Total Blocking
For some time, Roskomndazor has been calling on Twitter to remove “prohibited” content, to ensure that the social media platform complies with Russian law. The telecoms watchdog claimed that it had reported thousands of tweets to Twitter but after the platform failed to remove them, Russia adopted its own punitive measures to bring the company into line.
As a first step back in March, Russia reportedly used Deep Packet Inspection in order to identify and then throttle local Twitter traffic down to just 128kbps. That wasn’t without collateral damage but Russia doubled down by warning that Twitter could find itself blocked completely via court order, if it failed to respond to demands.
Given the mantra that the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it, some vowed to turn to VPNs, as they had done in the past when pirate sites and Telegram were blocked. But Russia warned that this wouldn’t help, informing the public that “much had changed” since the country attempted to block Telegram in 2018.
Twitter is Now Cooperating With Russia
In an announcement yesterday, Roskomndazor noted the May 15 deadline it had given Twitter to fall into compliance had come and gone. However, it appears some progress has been made.
On March 10, the day Russia began throttling Twitter, Roskomndazor already had demands on the table for the social platform to remove 4,100 “prohibited” items dating back to 2017. After that date, a further 1,800 new items were posted to the site. By last Saturday, however, Twitter had removed 91% of the contentious content and had signaled willingness to combat the problem moving forward.
“The management of Twitter sent a letter to Roskomnadzor, in which it confirmed that it fully shares the agency’s actions to combat socially dangerous content and will take all necessary measures to remove it,” the regulator says.
“The management of the social network expressed its readiness and interest in building a constructive dialogue with Roskomnadzor. The Twitter administration asked us not to take action to block Twitter, as well as to remove the current restrictions on its work.”
More Work Must Be Done Before Throttling is Completely Removed
After expressing appreciation for Twitter’s cooperation, Roskomnadzor appears to be loosening its grip on Twitter, but that comes with some caveats. In return for Twitter’s efforts, Russia says it will not seek to block Twitter entirely and will remove access restrictions on fixed Internet connections. However, throttling will remain on mobile networks until Twitter complies with all demands.
“[I]n order to completely remove the imposed restrictions on Twitter, it is necessary [for Twitter] to remove all identified prohibited materials, as well as bring the response time to the agency’s requirements into line with Russian standards (no later than 24 hours from the receipt of the request),” Roskomnadzor writes.
But as one problem appears to be nearing its conclusion, others are raising their heads.
Russia Warns YouTube & Facebook Of Similar Action
After apparently bringing Twitter much closer to full compliance, Russia appears keen to expand its reach to other media platforms presenting it with similar problems. According to Roskomndazor, “prohibited” content is also making an appearance on Facebook, YouTube and other “Internet sites” and if they don’t take action, they will face similar measures.
“It should be noted that at present, cases have been identified of posting illegal materials on other Internet sites, including Facebook and YouTube. In the event that these platforms do not take appropriate measures, similar sanctions may be applied to them,” Roskomndazor warns.
While no platform wants to be slowed down, the nature of Twitter means that throttling presents less of a problem than it would to Facebook and YouTube, the latter in particular. Whether Russia would apply the same bandwidth restrictions to these platforms is currently unknown but if that was indeed the case, both could be rendered almost entirely unusable.
At the time of writing there’s no renewed mention of VPN blocking in respect of either of these platforms. However, given that VPN use has the ability to undermine the leverage that Russia holds in ‘negotiations’ with user-generated content sites, it seems likely that the same threats will apply. And according to earlier analysis, it’s at least possible that Russia has the necessary tools to carry them out.
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