MOSCOW: Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-controlled RT television network, recently called on the government to block access to Western social media.
She wrote, "Foreign platforms in Russia must be closed."
Her social network choice for sending that message: Twitter.
Although the Kremlin fears an open Internet formed by American companies, it simply cannot take it.
Russia & # 39; s winter of discontent, waves of nationwide protests started by the return of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was made possible by the country's free and open internet. State monitors television waves, but online is Navalny & # 39; s dramatic arrest on arrival in Moscow, his investigation into the president Vladimir PutinThe alleged secret palace and calls for protest from its supporters were all broadcast to an audience of many millions.
For years, the Russian government has set up the technological and legal infrastructure to curb freedom of expression online, leading to frequent predictions that the country could be heading for internet censorship, similar to China's Great Firewall.
But even when Putin faced the biggest protests in years last month, his government seemed unwilling – and to some extent incapable – to block websites or take other drastic measures to limit the spread of digital dissidents.
The hesitation has underscored the challenge that Putin faces as he tries to flatten the political implications of cheap high-speed internet access reaching into the remote corners of the vast land and at the same time a population that has fallen in love with Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok, to avoid anger. .
"They are afraid," said Dmitri Galushko, a telecommunications consultant in Moscow, as to why the Kremlin has not made greater efforts. "They have all these weapons, but they don't know how to use them."
More generally, the question of how to deal with the Internet presents a dilemma PutinRussia: whether to take state repression to new heights and risk a public backlash or continue to contain public discontent by maintaining the appearance of an open society.
In China, government control went hand in hand with the early development of the Internet. But in Russia, home to a Soviet legacy of a vast pool of tech talent, digital entrepreneurship blossomed freely for two decades, until Putin began trying to curb online speech after the anti-government protests of 2011 and 2012.
At the time, the open Internet was so entrenched in business and society – and architecture so decentralized – that it was too late to radically change course. But efforts to censor the Internet, as well as requiring ISPs to install equipment for government surveillance and control, increased with bill after bill passed by parliament. At the same time, internet access continues to expand, partly thanks to government support.
Russian officials now say they have the technology to enable a "sovereign RuNet" – a network that would continue to give Russians access to Russian websites even if the country were cut off from the World Wide Web. The official rule is that this expensive infrastructure provides protection in case nefarious Western forces attempt to sever Russia's communications links. But activists say it's actually meant to give the Kremlin the option of cutting off part or all of Russia from the world.
"In principle, it will be possible to restore or enable the autonomous functioning of the Russian part of the Internet," Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's deputy chairman of Putin's Security Council and a former prime minister, recently told reporters. "Technologically, everything is ready for this."
Amid this year's domestic turmoil, the Russian saber rattle targeting Silicon Valley has reached a new level of intensity. Navalny has made expert use of it GoogleYouTube, Facebook Instagram and Twitter to reach tens of millions of Russians with its meme-ready images of official corruption, right down to the $ 850 toilet brush he claimed to have identified in a property used by Putin.
At the same time, Russia appears powerless to try to dissuade these companies from blocking pro-Kremlin accounts or forcing them to remove pro-Navalny content. (Navalny & # 39; s voice resonates on social media, even when he is behind bars: On Saturday, a court upheld his prison sentence of more than two years.)
Russian telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor has begun publicly berating American internet companies, sometimes several times a day. On Wednesday, the regulator said the voice chat social network Clubhouse had "violated the right of citizens to access information and to distribute it freely" by suspending the account of a prominent state television presenter Vladimir Solovyov. On January 29, it claimed that Google blocked YouTube videos featuring the Russian national anthem, calling it "blatant and unacceptable rudeness to all citizens of our country."
Clubhouse apparently blocked Solovyov's account due to user complaints, while Google said some videos featuring the Russian national anthem had been falsely blocked due to a problem with the rights to the content. Clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition, as calls for nationwide protest spread after Navalny's arrest last month, Roskomnadzor said social networks were encouraging minors to engage in illegal activities.
The Russian social network VKontakte and the Chinese app TikTok partially complied with Roskomnadzor's order to block access to protest-related content. But Facebook declined, stating, "This content does not violate our community standards."
Despite all its criticisms of American social media companies, the Kremlin has used it extensively to spread its message around the world. It was Facebook that served as a key tool in Russia's attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States. On YouTube, the state-controlled network RT has a total of 14 million subscribers to the channels in English, Spanish and Arabic.
Simonyan, the editor of RT, says she will continue to use US social media platforms as long as they are not banned.
"To stop using these platforms while everyone else is using them is to capitulate to the adversary," she said in a statement to The. New York Times"To ban them for everyone is to overcome the said opponent."
A law signed by Putin in December gives his government new powers to block or restrict access to social networks, but it has yet to use them. When regulators tried to block access to the messaging app Telegram from 2018, the two-year effort ended in failure after Telegram found ways to get around the restrictions.
Instead, officials are trying to lure Russians into social networks like VKontakte, which are closely linked to the government. Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the state-owned natural gas giant, has pledged to make its long-dying video platform RuTube a competitor to YouTube. And in December, it said it bought an app modeled on TikTok called "Ya Molodets" – Russian for "I'm Awesome" – for sharing short smartphone videos.
Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who co-wrote a book about the Kremlin's efforts to control the Internet, says the strategy of persuading people to use Russian platforms is one way to prevent dissent from going viral at times. of crisis. As of April 1, all smartphones sold in Russia must be pre-loaded with 16 Russian apps, including three social networks and an answer to Apple's Siri voice assistant called Marusya.
"The goal is for the typical Russian user to live in a bubble of Russian apps," Soldatov said. "It can potentially be quite effective."
Even more effective, some activists say, is the acceleration of Putin's machine of selective repression. A new law makes online libel punishable by up to five years in prison, and the editor of a popular news website was jailed for 15 days for retweeting a joke that contained a reference to a pro-Navalny protest in January.
A widespread video this month shows a SWAT team in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok questioning Gennady Shulga, a local video blogger who covered the protests. A shirtless officer with a helmet, goggles and combat gear presses Shulga onto a tile floor next to two pet food bowls.
"The Kremlin is very much losing the information race," said Sarkis Darbinyan, an Internet freedom activist. "Self-censorship and fear – that's where we're going."
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