Now, concerns about the law’s reach are spilling over into the technology sector, where platforms may soon face even more pressure from the Kremlin to crack down on what their users are posting about the war.
On Sunday, TikTok said it will suspend users’ ability to post new content and livestreams in Russia, dramatically limiting its services in the region, as my colleague Nitasha Tiku reported. The company cited concerns about the safety of its employees and users in its announcement.
Researchers and advocates lamented the move as the latest blow to free expression in Russia, where access to several major platforms has been blocked or severely restricted amid backlash from the Kremlin over tech companies’ crackdowns against Russian state media. Those actions are increasingly cordoning off Russian Internet users from open sources of information.
John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, and Konstantinos Komaitis, former senior director for policy at the Internet Society:
The law makes tech companies’ already precarious position in the region even more tenuous.
It remains to be seen whether Russian government officials will attempt to use the law to hold platforms directly accountable for hosting war content that the Kremlin has criminalized. If platforms do continue operating, their users’ posts could be used to incriminate them.
Russian officials could use the law as a fresh tool to try to force tech companies to remove war content they deem criminal. If companies don’t comply, it provides the Russian government with yet another justification to block their services.
Those factors could push more companies to pull out of Russia on their own, thereby sparing the Kremlin the trouble of actively blocking their products.
“[The platforms] are some of the few ways citizens have to get news that isn’t controlled by the Russian government,” former Facebook public policy director Katie Harbath told me. “But they also don’t want to be putting their employees or users in [harm’s] way.”
She added, “I’m sure many as well are debating if it’s just better to shut down the ability for people to post like TikTok did rather than be faced with a takedown request from Russia.”
TikTok users in Russia losing their ability to post new content is particularly symbolic, given how pivotal their posts were toward documenting Russia’s military buildup leading up to the war, and in tracking developments since.
The end of one of the major OSINT tools in Russia, that along with satellite imagery helped document Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders. TikTok was instrumental in showing the specific unit details that indicated the buildup had an operational purpose. https://t.co/F0CS6nV4ry
— Oliver Alexander (@OAlexanderDK) March 6, 2022
It’s also the most prominent social media platform to have a parent company based in China, which has a long-standing friendship with Russia, creating a unique political dynamic.
TikTok is not as popular in Russia as other major platforms, like YouTube and WhatsApp, but it’s far more commonly used than Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat, as my colleague Will Oremus reported. A quarter of Russian Internet users are active monthly on TikTok, according to data from eMarketer.
Twitter and Meta, the parent company of Instagram and WhatsApp, declined to comment on their approach to the Russian law. YouTube did not return a request for comment.
If platforms that are more popular in Russia follow TikTok’s lead, it could deal the biggest blow yet to the free flow of information online in the country, deepening Russian users’ digital isolation.
Governments are taking to Twitter to slam Russia
Official government Twitter accounts are shedding formality for a casual, sharp tone that is more common among individuals or corporate brands that clap back at one another, Rachel Lerman reports. In a recent example, Germany’s South Africa embassy responded to a tweet by its Russian counterparts that mentioned the Nazis.
Sorry, but we can’t stay silent on this one, it’s just far too cynical. What 🇷🇺 is doing in 🇺🇦 is slaughtering innocent children, women and men for its own gain. It’s definitely not “fighting Nazism”. Shame on anyone who’s falling for this. (Sadly, we’re kinda experts on Nazism.)
— Germany in SA (@GermanEmbassySA) March 5, 2022
“Ukraine’s @Ukraine Twitter presence has been so conversational that some have urged caution, even though it has been verified by the social media company,” Rachel writes. “When @Ukraine tweeted a call for cryptocurrency donations last week, one crypto leader told people to be wary until they verified the call was real. (It was real.)”
Netflix suspended service in Russia
Netflix joins a growing list of firms halting their business in Russia amid the war in Ukraine, Hannah Knowles reports. The company cited “the circumstances on the ground” in a statement on the suspension of its Russia service.
Russia’s communications regulator last year told Netflix to add 20 Russian channels — including some linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle — to its service in the country effective March 1. Last week, the company said it didn’t have plans to comply with the regulation, Reuters reported. Netflix said it wouldn’t add the channels because of the “current situation,” an apparent reference to the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s Internet is shifting inward
Russian censors have banned Facebook and throttled other U.S. social media services, and Internet service provider Cogent Communications severed ties with Russian clients, Craig Timberg, Cat Zakrzewski and Joseph Menn report. Taken together, the developments will make it harder for Russians to track the war in Ukraine and bring the country closer to a completely isolated Internet.
“Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, at first pressured popular consumer companies like Apple, Facebook and Google to withdraw services from Russia,” they write. “Now he has turned his attention to the companies that make the Internet itself function,” asking companies like Amazon and Cloudflare to stop providing services in Russia.
The move by Cogent was unprecedented, analysts say. “A backbone carrier disconnecting its customers in a country the size of Russia is without precedent in the history of the Internet,” analyst Doug Madory wrote.
SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said the firm had been asked to block Russian news sources on its Starlink satellite Internet service, which it has sent to Ukraine, Nitasha Tiku reports. Musk declined, according to his tweet:
Starlink has been told by some governments (not Ukraine) to block Russian news sources. We will not do so unless at gunpoint.
Sorry to be a free speech absolutist.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 5, 2022
Twitter users debated the potential impacts of TikTok’s decision to not let users in Russia post new content or livestreams. Solana Labs’s Austin Federa:
TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden:
The New York Times’s Ryan Mac: