Several major tech companies and social media sites have decided to stand up to Russian authorities who recently handed down orders to block content regarding an upcoming protest. The protest was in support of Alexei Navalny, a lawyer, anti corruption activist, and outspoken critic of Putin. Navalny is being charged with fraud, and although the prosecutors insist the charges are not politically motivated, Navalny’s supporters believe otherwise.
The orders to block content are based on a recently passed law, that gives prosecutors the power to censor content without a court order if they include calls to take part in unsanctioned public gatherings. This can only be seen as an attempt to crack down on what many of us take for granted as a right to peaceful protest.
Facebook initially obeyed the orders to remove content relating to the protest, but has apparently changed its mind, as new pages have since been created about the protest that have remained up. Facebook is reviewing orders to remove content with its lawyers, according to an insider, but no public statement has been made yet on its stance on this matter. Google has left up videos about the protest, in defiance of orders to take them down.
Twitter has gone even further and actively warned users that Russian government is attempting to censor discussion of the protest, as well as making a public statement that they will not comply with orders to remove the requested content. Even Russian based social networking site VKontakte has decided to cease removing content based on these orders, so that it can remain competitive with western social media sites.
If anything the orders to social networking sites to remove content relating to the protest only further implicates the government in corruption. In yet another example of the Streisand effect, attempts to censor this protest have actually boosted its visibility and gotten a larger audience to find out about it.
Russia is no stranger to internet censorship, nor are they the only government to attempt to block content that might be considered subversive. However this represents a major shift in behavior for tech companies, who in the past have been quite accommodating of government orders, Russian or otherwise, to remove certain content. And this new resistance to censorship could have serious implications for free speech on the internet.
A spokesman for the prosecutor said orders to block content, “will be fulfilled,” without specifying any details, leading to speculation that non compliant sites will be outright blocked in Russia. However blocking sites can be a serious risk for the Russian government. Blocking massively popular sites like YouTube and Facebook, will surely not go unnoticed by the general population, and could trigger even wider outrage against the government.
Tech companies have to balance the needs of their users and any negative reputation they might get for censoring content against the risk of their sites being blocked in Russia, which is one of the largest markets in the world. In this case, tech companies have taken a risk, and taken a stand against censorship. Time will tell which side will prevail in the end.