Twitter and Russia in war of words over censorship

Russia says Twitter agreed to block 12 "extremist" accounts, Twitter denies it did any such thing

Financial trends and news by Steven Loeb
June 23, 2014
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Twitter just got gone dealing with all of that nonsense over in Turkey, and now it looks like it might have another authoritarian regime to deal with, this time in Russia.

Only day after Colin Crowell, Twitter’s public policy chief, met with Alexander Zharov, who is the head of Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor, Russia and Twitter are already at odds over what exactly happened in that meeting.

According to Russia, Twitter is going to help the Russians restrict the access of  accounts that have been deemed "extremist."

"Following the meeting, the management of Twitter transmitted detailed information on 12 accounts microblogging service, the content of which has been recognized as extremist decisions of the General Prosecutor's Office," Roskomnadzor said in an official press release, "Roscomnadzor expects a positive decision by the administration of the resource to delete these accounts or restricting access to them on the territory of Russia."

The news was also reported in a number of news agencies, including Rapsi, which is the Russian Legal Information Agency, and Russian newspaper

Twitter, however, is denying that such discussion of the topic ever took place, telling Bloomberg in a statement to Bloomberg on Monday, “That claim is inaccurate, as we did not agree to remove the accounts."

Even before this incident, Twitter was already facing problems in Russia, as the country has begun to crack down on the Internet, and social media in particular.

First, Russia's parliament passed a law that required social media websites to keep their servers in Russia and save all information about their users for six months. That legislation goes into effect at the beginning of August.

President Vladimir Putin then called Twitter a "CIA project" and warned his citizens not to use the service. That was then followed by another move by Putin, in which he signed a law that required bloggers to register with the government. That same month, Maxim Ksenzov, deputy head of Roskomnadzor, actually threatened to take the site down, calling it a “political” tool.

“We can block Twitter or Facebook tomorrow for several minutes,” he said at the time. “We do not see any risks in that.” 

Ksenzov eventually backtracked, and Twitter was not actually shut down. But these incidents do highlight how tenuous the relationship between social media and countries that want to restrict free and open expression among their citizenry.

If part of Russia's terms for making a deal involve censorship of certain parties and organizations, it should heed the warnings over what happened to LinkedIn when it struck a deal to enter China earlier this year.

After LinkedIn made its China announcement, the company also came under fire after it admitted that it was only able to operate there because it complied with Chinese censorship laws. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner defended the decision in a blog post written shortly after.

"As a condition for operating in the country, the government of China imposes censorship requirements on Internet platforms. LinkedIn strongly supports freedom of expression and fundamentally disagrees with government censorship," Weiner said. 

"At the same time, we also believe that LinkedIn’s absence in China would deny Chinese professionals a means to connect with others on our global platform, thereby limiting the ability of individual Chinese citizens to pursue and realize the economic opportunities, dreams and rights most important to them."

Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have to thread a fine line when it comes to censorship, one that they have stepped over more than a few times. If Twitter were to concede to Russian demands, I imagine the backlash in the United States would be quite harsh.

Twitter could not be reached for comment on the reports. 

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