Russia Raises Heat on Twitter, Google and Facebook in Online Crackdown

LONDON — Russia is increasingly pressuring Google, Twitter and Facebook to fall in line with Kremlin internet crackdown orders or risk restrictions inside the country, as more governments around the world challenge the companies’ principles on online freedom.

Russia’s internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, recently ramped up its demands for the Silicon Valley companies to remove online content that it deems illegal or restore pro-Kremlin material that had been blocked. The warnings have come at least weekly since services from Facebook, Twitter and Google were used as tools for anti-Kremlin protests in January. If the companies do not comply, the regulator has said, they face fines or access to their products may be throttled.

The latest clashes flared up this week, when Roskomnadzor told Google on Monday to block thousands of unspecified pieces of illegal content or it would slow access to the company’s services. On Tuesday, a Russian court fined Google 6 million rubles, or about $81,000, for not taking down another piece of content.

“Access to a free and open internet is an essential right for all citizens,” Twitter said. “We remain deeply committed to offering a safe service to account holders around the world — including those in Russia.”

Anastasiia Zlobina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who focuses on Russian internet censorship, said the government crackdown threatened the future of American internet services in the country. A turning point, she said, was when YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were used during protests in support of the opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny after his arrest in January. The demonstrations were the biggest shows of dissent against Mr. Putin in years.

“This mobilization was happening online,” Ms. Zlobina said.

The Russian government has portrayed the tech industry as part of a foreign campaign to meddle in domestic affairs. The authorities have accused the companies of blocking pro-Kremlin online accounts while boosting the opposition, and said the platforms were also havens for child pornography and drug sales.

Twitter became the first major test of Russia’s censorship technology in March when access to its service was slowed down, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

To resolve the conflict, a Twitter executive met at least twice with Russian officials, according to the company and Roskomnadzor. The government, which had threatened to ban Twitter entirely, said the company had eventually complied with 91 percent of its takedown requests.

Other internet companies have also been affected. Last month, TikTok, the popular social media platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, was fined 2.6 million rubles, or about $35,000, for not removing posts seen as encouraging minors to participate in illegal demonstrations. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

The fines are small, but larger penalties loom. The Russian government can increase fines to as much as 10 percent of a company’s revenue for repeat offenses, and, perhaps more important, authorities can disrupt their services.

Perhaps the biggest target has been Google. YouTube has been a key outlet for government critics such as Mr. Navalny to share information and organize. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Google has employees in Russia. (The company would not say how many.)

In addition to this week’s warning, Russia has demanded that Google lift restrictions that limit the availability of some content from state media outlets like Sputnik and Russia Today outside Russia.

Russia’s antitrust regulator is also investigating Google over YouTube’s policies for blocking videos.

Google is trying to use the courts to fight some actions by the Russian government. Last month, it sued Roskomnadzor to fight an order to remove 12 YouTube videos related to opposition protests. In another case, the company appealed a ruling ordering YouTube to reinstate videos from Tsargrad, a nationalist online TV channel, which Google had taken down over what it said were violations of American sanctions.

Joanna Szymanska, a senior program officer for Article 19, an internet freedom group, said Google’s recent lawsuit to fight the YouTube takedown orders would influence what other countries did in the future, even if the company was likely to lose in court. Ms. Szymanska, who is based in Poland, called on the tech companies to be more transparent about what content they were being asked to delete, and what orders they were complying with.

“The Russian example will be used elsewhere if it works well,” she said.

Adam Satariano reported from London and Oleg Matsnev from Moscow. Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Moscow.

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