Facebook, Twitter, Google Resist Russian Pressure to Pull Protest Posts

The Term 2014 H
Marx Film

The tech giants view the demands as censorship and a threat to their business models

Facebook, Twitter and Google are resisting Russian pressure to remove information about a Jan. 15 rally planned in support of an opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner.

Resistance to what the tech giants see as censorship and a threat to their business models is stiffening after attempts from repressive governments around the world, including those in China and Turkey, to limit what Internet users can see.

Last week, Facebook bowed to a demand from Russia's general prosecutor conveyed via Internet regulator Roskomnadzor to take down a page on the company's Russian site advertising a Moscow rally in support of Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader currently under house arrest on fraud charges, which he denies.

More than 12,000 users had indicated they would attend the unsanctioned rally, making it illegal under Russian law.

The demand was based on a new law designed to prevent the promotion of suicide, narcotics and extremism that also includes the promotion of banned public meetings in its terms of reference.

Navalny supporters promptly put up a new page that attracted 15,000 indications of attendance for the rally within a day. By Monday, the figure had grown to more than 33,000.

Worried that Russia's demands are just the tip of the iceberg and that growing censorship could harm their businesses, Facebook, Twitter and Google have now turned to lawyers to argue against the restrictions, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Russia's most popular social media site, Vkontakte, which has also faced demands to take down postings about the rally, is digging in its heels, arguing that if it complies, it will be at a competitive disadvantage.

If tens of thousands attend the rally, set for the day Navalny was due in court, it would represent the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin since Russia's winter protests of 2011, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg to demand political change and more liberal policies, events detailed in the documentary film The Term.

Late Monday, in a move that may be an attempt by authorities to deflate that threat, Navalny's court date was switched to Tuesday morning. when he is now due to hear the verdict in a case for which prosecutors have demanded a 10-year jail sentence. Coming on the day before Russians begin their biggest annual holiday, the 10 day break for New Year, that may be enough to deflate plans for a mass demonstration.

It is unlikely to entirely defuse rising tensions.

Comments last week critical of the Russian moves by former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul drew a sharp response from Russian parliamentarian Mikhail Degtyaryov, who tweeted that "McFaul should be quiet, and Facebook should obey Russian laws. We know what happens to countries that don't limit extremist activity online — that's the 'Arab Spring' … Russia doesn't need that."

Russian public anger is now concentrated more on economic than political issues after the recent collapse in the value of the ruble against the dollar and other foreign currencies. Compared to the dollar, the Russian currency is now worth half its value from a year ago.

Two weeks ago, the ruble fell from around 55 to the dollar to 80 to the dollar at one point before recovery. Today it is trading at around the same figure, although many Russians were panicked into exchanging their rubles into dollars or euros when the prices peaked. Some now suspect market manipulation by the extremely rich and powerful to have been behind the currency fluctuations that could not be explained by other economic indicators such as the price of oil or Western sanctions against Russia.

In a sign that the Kremlin may be rattled by the prospect of major public unrest, Chechen leader and former warlord Ramzan Kadyrov pledged his support for Putin at a parade of 20,000 battle-hardened former rebels turned security force members in Grozny Sunday, saying: "It is time to make a conscious choice, and … say to the world that we are [the] fighting infantry of Vladimir Putin, [who can] consider us as a voluntary special squad … ready to defend Russia."