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Russian Lawmakers Threaten to Block Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube Over ‘Censorship’ Claims

Russia accounts for the eighth-largest online population in the world. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Russian lawmakers have introduced a bill authorizing the government to potentially block Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for “censoring” Russian media outlets on their platforms.

The legislation seeks to target foreign social media companies that “violate the rights of citizens of the Russian Federation to freely seek, receive, transfer, produce and distribute information,” by removing content from Russian state media.

Under the bill, the prosecutor-general’s office and foreign ministry would jointly designate violating platforms, which would be subject to punishments ranging from a fine of up to three million rubles (around $39,000), traffic slowdown, and even being partially or fully blocked in Russia.

In an explanatory note, the lawmakers singled out Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for criticism, accusing the U.S.-based companies of committing at least 20 acts of “censorship” against Russian media outlets over the past seven months.

Sen. Alexei Pushkov, one of the bill’s sponsors and an influential member of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, said the legislation is designed to put the American companies on notice, but insisted that a complete ban would only be implemented as a measure of last resort.

“I want to emphasize that the bill is not aimed at blocking foreign internet resources, but at protecting Russian mass media and ensuring that citizens have free access to information posted by Russian media outlets on foreign platforms operating on the territory of Russia,” he told state-run newspaper Parlamentskaya Gazeta.

“Blocking is the most extreme means of responding to discrimination against Russian media and Internet channels, in the event of a conflict between a network company and Russian legislation.”

Amid a growing campaign by social media companies to crack down on “disinformation” on their platforms, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have all recently imposed various restrictions on accounts affiliated with Russian state news outlets such as RT, RIA Novosti, and Crimea-24. In some cases, content was taken down, while in others, the accounts themselves were banned or removed from search results.

The privately-owned, conservative TV channel Tsargrad was permanently removed from YouTube earlier this summer because of U.S. sanctions against its founder, Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev.

The moves have prompted a backlash from Moscow. Last week, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accused the U.S.-based social media giants of showing “clear bias” against Russian users. “Of course, there must be action against this,” he said.

In recent years the Kremlin has sought to reduce Russia’s technological dependence on the West, while also increasing state management of the Internet. In 2015, Moscow passed a law requiring all companies that collect the personal data of Russian nationals to store that information on servers physically located in Russia.

As part of a “Sovereign Internet” law adopted last year, Russia began working to develop a national domain name system, a mechanism that would allow for the Russian Internet to continue working even if the country was disconnected from the global web.

The Kremlin’s critics argue that these measures are less about national security than they are about expanding the government’s ability to censor information online. According to polling from the state-funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center, a majority of Russians oppose the government’s initiatives to strengthen control over the Internet.

Enforcement of the new regulations has been inconsistent at best, however. Although LinkedIn was blocked in Russia in 2016 for failing to comply with the newly-enacted data storage law, other offenders such as Twitter and Facebook notably were not.

In 2018, the government instituted a ban on the Telegram messenger app for refusing to hand over its encryption keys to the country’s security services. Yet even after authorities blocked millions of IP addresses associated with the app, Telegram continued to function in Russia and even increased its user base. The ban was lifted earlier this year.

Boasting over 116 million Internet users in a country of 145 million people, Russia has the eighth largest online population in the world.

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