On March 10 2021, the Russian Government deliberately slowed down access to Twitter after it accused the platform of repeatedly failing to remove posts about illegal drug use, child pornography, and pushing minors towards suicide.
State communications watchdog Roskomnadzor (RKN) claimed that “throttling” the speed of uploading and downloading images and videos on Twitter was to protect its citizens by making its content less accessible. Using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, RKN essentially filtered internet traffic for Twitter-related domains. As part of Russia’s controversial 2019 Sovereign Internet Law, all Russian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were required to install this technology, which allows internet traffic to be filtered, rerouted, and blocked with granular rules through a centralized system. In this example, it blocked or slowed down access to specific content (images and videos) rather than the entire service. DPI technology also gives Russian authorities unilateral and automatic access to ISPs’ information systems and access to keys to decrypt user communications.
The University of Michigan’s researchers reported connection speeds to Twitter users were reduced on average by 87 percent and some Russian internet service providers reported a wider slowdown in access. Inadvertently, this throttling affected all website domains that included the substring t.co (Twitter’s shortened domain name), including Microsoft.com, Reddit.com, Russian state operated news site rt.com and several other Russian Government websites, including RKN’s own.
Although reports suggest that Twitter has a limited user base in Russia, perhaps as low as 3% of the population (from an overall population of 144 million), it is popular with politicians, journalists and opposition figures. The ‘throttling’ of access was likely intended as a warning shot to other platforms and a test of Russia’s technical capabilities. Russian parliamentarian, Aleksandr Khinshtein, an advocate of the 2019 Sovereign Internet Law, was quoted as saying that:
Putting the brakes on Twitter traffic “will force all other social networks and large foreign internet companies to understand Russia won’t silently watch and swallow the flagrant ignoring of our laws.” The companies would have to obey Russian rules on content or “lose the possibility to make money in Russia.” — Aleksandr Khinshtein
The Russian Government has a history of trying to limit and control citizen’s access and use of social media. In 2018, it tried and ultimately failed to shut down Telegram, a popular messaging app. Telegram, founded by the Russian émigré, Pavel Durov, refused to hand over its encryption keys to RKN, despite a court order. Telegram was able to thwart the shutdown attempts by shifting the hosting of its website to Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services through ‘domain fronting’ – which the Russian Government later banned. The Government eventually backed down in the face of technical difficulties and strong public opposition.
Many news outlets suggest that these incidents demonstrate that Russia, where the internet has long been a last bastion of free speech as the government has shuttered independent news organizations and obstructed political opposition, is now tipping towards the more tightly controlled Chinese model and replicating aspects of its famed Great Fire Wall – including creating home-grown alternatives to Western platforms. They also warn that as Russian tactics become bolder and its censorship technology more technically sophisticated – they will be easily co-opted and scaled up by other autocratic governments.
- To what extent should companies comply with such types of government demands?
- Where do companies draw the line between acquiescing to government demands/local law that are contrary to its values or could result in human rights violations vs expanding into a market or ensuring that its users have access?
- To what extent should companies align their response and/or mitigation strategies with that of other (competitor) US companies affected in a similar way by local regulation?
- Should companies try to circumvent the ‘throttling’ or access restrictions through technical means such as reconfiguring content delivery networks?
- Should companies alert its users that their government is restricting/throttling access?
- When are government takedown requests too broad and overreaching? Who – companies, governments, civil society, a platform’s users – should decide when that is the case?
- How transparent should companies be with its users about why certain content is taken down because of government requests and regulation? Would there be times when companies should not be too transparent?
- What can users and advocacy groups do to challenge government restrictions on access to a platform?
- Should – as the United Nations suggest – access to the internet be seen as a part of a suite of digital human rights?
The ‘throttling’ of access to Twitter content initially lasted two months. According to RKN, Twitter removed 91 percent of its takedown requests after RKN threatened to block Twitter if it didn’t comply. Normal speeds for desktop users resumed in May after Twitter complied with RKN’s takedown requests but reports indicate that throttling is continuing for Twitter’s mobile app users until it complies fully with RKN’s takedown requests.
Written by Tasneem Akhtar