For most bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users, getting 3,000 followers sounds like one definition of success. Russia’s Vladimir Putin defines it as a threat — and he’s issuing one of his own to the most prominent Internet providers. Either share the real identities of Russians with significant followings on blogs and social media, or get blocked in the Russian Federation altogether, reports Reuters’ Maria Tsvetkova and Eric Auchard:
Russia’s media watchdog has written to Google, Twitter and Facebook warning them against violating Russian Internet laws and a spokesman said on Thursday they risk being blocked if they do not comply with the rules.
Roskomnadzor said it had sent letters this week to the three U.S.-based Internet firms asking them to comply with Internet laws which critics of President Vladimir Putin have decried as censorship. …
He added that, because of the encryption technology used by the three firms, Russia had no way of blocking specific websites and so could only bring down particular content it deemed in violation of law by blocking access to their whole services.
To comply with the law, the three firms must hand over data on Russian bloggers with more than 3,000 readers per day, and take down websites that Roskomnadzor sees as containing calls for “unsanctioned protests and unrest”, Ampelonsky said.
It’s worth noting at this point that the US under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton argued in 2009 that the coolness in US-Russian relations was a result not of Putin’s imperialism (like the invasion of Georgia a few months earlier) but from George W. Bush’s cowboy diplomacy. That was the point of the embarrassing gift of a misspelled “reset button” to Sergei Lavrov in March of that year, promising a new era of American trust of Putin. How’s that working out for us, and especially American tech firms, let alone places like Ukraine and the Baltic states?
It’s also a moment of truth for the tech giants, too. Google infamously knuckled under to China’s demands for censorship and cooperation against dissidents last decade as the price for access to their vast market. Six years ago, CEO Eric Schmidt suggested, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place[.]” They’ve since toughened their stand on censorship and governmental interference, mainly because their customer base got irate over Google’s actions.
Do they risk losing the Russian market, or do they out Russian bloggers whose voices have risen to significant influence? The former would damage their bottom line, but the latter is not a morally neutral position. The Putin government has been trying to suppress dissidents for years, and the one refuge for those standing up to the two-decade oligarchical rule of the former KGB officer has been the safety of the Internet. A country-wide blackout would also silence those voices, but at least there would not be any mistaking the nature of the regime in that kind of action. Cooperation with oppression would not just silence those voices but put them in physical danger, while simultaneously making the Internet look like business as usual to other Russians.
Freedom is not a one-bout fight, but requires constant vigilance. Let’s hope the tech giants have learned from their footsie with Beijing, and will stand up to the latest bully attempting to silence threats to his power. A reset button on courage would be useful at this moment.