If you have been following the Internet crackdown underway in Russia, you will not be surprised to learn that Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has recruited many websites — which are either terrified of his wrath or interested in currying his favor — to help crush and eradicate criticism of his government online.
However, you may be surprised to learn that one of those websites is Twitter.
The Moscow Times reported last week that — according to the Kremlin itself — for the past several weeks Twitter has been blocking Russian access to any tweets designated by the Kremlin as “extremist.” Twitter has also deleted at least one user account at the Kremlin’s request.
On its applicable agency website (known by its acronym Roskomnadzor), the Kremlin praises Twitter’s management team for its “constructive position” in reconfiguring its website in a manner “acceptable to Russian side.”
Here is the full Kremlin statement, via Russian wire service Interfax:
Negotiations on cooperation with the largest international Internet social platform as part of maintaining the register of information whose dissemination is banned in Russia had been held since the moment the first entries appeared in the register with references to those tweets. The administration of Twitter had had no practice of interaction with foreign governmental bodies on the removal or restriction of illegal content, and this made the negotiations difficult. The constructive position of the administration of the resource made it possible to formulate a mutually acceptable interaction algorithm that makes it possible to have information from the register processed within periods acceptable to the Russian side.
The agency has already blacklisted over 600 Russian websites, including a wiki and a digital library.
This same Kremlin agency is being sued by YouTube because of similar demands the agency tried to place on that subsidiary of Google, restrictions that prevented YouTube from displaying material that was clearly for entertainment purposes.
The zeal of Russian regulators goes far beyond that; then-president Dmitri Medvedev has even fallen afoul of the censors.
While Google is apparently fighting back, Twitter has taken a very different approach: under-the-radar appeasement. Had the Kremlin not boasted about its ability to push Twitter around, we might still not be aware of what Twitter is currently doing.
However, Twitter has, in fact, previously mentioned its ability to cater to a country’s censorship. In January 2012 — in a blog post ironically titled “Tweets still must flow” — Twitter announced:
We give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.
Interestingly, in June 2010 Twitter execs gushed about a visit by sham “president” Dmitri Medvedev to their world headquarters. They said they were “honored,” and he was “incredibly generous.” Two years later, Medvedev acknowledged his presidency was a fraud, and handed Vladimir Putin unchecked power for life.
There should not be any doubt that this system of neo-Soviet censorship will be used against Putin’s political rivals. Consider the case of Russian parliament member Dmitry Gudkov: for criticizing Putin, Gudkov was first forced out of his party block in the legislature. Then, for visiting the United States and speaking out, he was accused of treason and threatened with imprisonment. If the Kremlin will openly attack a prominent member of the legislature in this manner, imagine how far it will go to crush an obscure microblogger.
The Kremlin is following a neo-Soviet strategy: It initially couches its restrictive provisions in terms of “protecting children from abuse” and “pursuing terrorist activity,” but the measures are always couched in language that is carefully crafted so that the law can be expanded to include any activity that undermines Putin’s authority.
To be clear: the vast majority of Russians will have no problem with Twitter’s censorship, because polling clearly showing the vast majority of Russians believe in censorship. The notion, advanced during the Cold War, that all Russians felt victimized by their totalitarian state was simply not true. There are wide, deep currents of support for repression.
And who can blame them, if the freedom-loving West won’t take the lead? If a massive organization like Twitter, one of the most powerful websites on the planet, is going to simply roll over for the Kremlin, then the Kremlin will conclude it can readily move forward. Its ultimate goal will be to block any content it disagrees with, just as was the case in Soviet times.
As such, Twitter’s conduct is reprehensible. If Russians who do oppose the regime cannot look to American organizations for support, it’s inevitable that they will lose hope and stop resisting as Putin seeks to create a neo-Soviet dictatorship.
Such resistance is important to Americans, not just Russian citizens. As Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute has recently shown, Putin is not just seeking to recreate a Soviet state on the domestic front; his foreign policy is just as determined to reestablish the Soviet empire. Russia’s foreign policy interests are diametrically opposed to those of the U.S.: Putin wants high oil prices, so he wants instability in the Middle East; we want low prices and stable democracies. If Putin wins total control over his domestic front, he will be free to turn all his energies to supporting rogue regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.
It’s also important simply for moral reasons. America is the world’s great beacon of hope, the one nation that can be trusted to stand up for freedom and liberty even in the darkest hours. An online petition has been created to pressure Twitter — sign it, and let Twitter know that enabling an anti-American dictatorship is not acceptable.