From Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 11, 2021, p. 1. Complete text:

On March 10 at 10 a.m., Russia introduced technical measures to counter threats (TMCT) against Twitter. This is a sort of online “big brother,” as stipulated by the law on a sovereign Russian Internet [aka the Law on Mass Media; see Vol. 72, No. 47, pp. 8‑9 – Trans.]. Roskomnadzor [Federal Oversight Service for Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media] ordered traffic to be slowed for [Twitter] – i.e., it applied the new law to one of the most politicized international IT platforms for failing to comply with [Russian laws]. At the same time, Twitter is, of course, not the most popular resource in Russia. And the experiment was not expected to have any adverse effects. . . .

In the afternoon, Roskomnadzor reported that the filtration equipment was fully functioning in all regions, and no adverse effects have been noted. However, the Interfax news agency included a phrase from [Roskomnadzor’s] press release that may indicate a link between service disruptions at Rostelekom and the experiment involving Russia’s big brother and Twitter: “All other IP networks are functioning normally as far as slowing down traffic is concerned.”

At the same time, by midday, the Web sites of the presidential administration, the government, the Federation Council and several [federal] agencies started to experience access issues. Thus, the situation was reminiscent of the state’s recent campaign against Telegram [see Vol. 70, No. 16, pp. 3‑6]. This means that they haven’t been able to come up with anything new, and the TMCT remain a proverbial giant axe, which is a poor choice of instrument for delicately severing the thin threads of the Internet one by one. However, the situation also showed that even though a complete block [of an online resource] is possible in practice, its consequences may be, while perhaps not fatal, nevertheless tragic.

Still, recent events show that the Russian leadership includes influential groups that are not averse to such consequences. What’s more, these groups have a strong influence on [Russian] President Vladimir Putin, judging by some of his recent statements about the harm that virtual reality poses. At the same time, it’s apparently no coincidence that Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko recently said that it’s hardly a good idea to [try to] block social networks, since it’s impossible to do. State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin does not share her opinion, but he is willing to avoid resorting to this measure if international social networks agree to comply with Russian legislation, including tax laws. To make a long story short, the prompt application of one of the draconian laws adopted in late December [2020] shows that the happenings in the media space during the recent US presidential election made quite an impression on the Russian authorities.

Konstantin Kalachov, head of the Political Expert Group, told NG: “The president said that the Internet is capable of imploding a society. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, the Internet increases the risk of social destabilization – and this refers to content, not communication channels. The Internet is helping coordinate horizontal ties and social self-organization, which alarms the regime.” At the same time, according to the expert, the official explanation for the actions against social networks is merely an excuse; in reality, the situation is being exacerbated by the upcoming [State Duma] elections. “The authorities are worried that the opposition will be better able to leverage the Internet to promote its agenda,” he said. At the same time, Kalachov said that the regime has also learned to use the Internet to its advantage. However, he adds that “it’s possible that some in the president’s inner circle are taking advantage of his limited knowledge about the Internet to pursue their own agenda – for instance, to secure financing for their online channels, or for political and career advancement.” The expert doubts that the authorities are currently capable of completely blocking social networks: This may elicit an extremely negative reaction even from the apolitical electorate: It’s never a good idea to deprive society of something it has long grown used to. Further developments will depend on how the regime feels during the campaign. Most likely, [the authorities] will target specific users with fines and block certain sites. “This is not the last warning, but rather the umpteenth warning. No one is going to risk blocking social networks in the near future, unless we see widespread calls to protest. So far, the situation does not look like a prerevolutionary one,” Kalachov stated.

Sergei Obukhov, head of the Russian Federation Communist Party’s (RFCP) analytical center, told NG: “The authorities assume that we are going to see foreign online interference during the elections. That is why they are taking steps against foreign interference, as well as against the domestic opposition, which uses the Internet a lot, especially during elections. But without triggers in the form of protest rallies, the regime is not going to shut down the Internet, especially since doing so could spark popular unrest. Moreover, blocking attempts will not affect the functioning of social networks; as we saw with Telegram, transnational corporations are not going to go up in smoke because of Russian restrictions.”

Aleksei Makarkin, first vice-president of the Center for Political Technologies, said: “The official explanation that this has to do with prohibited content, i.e., pornography, is intended for the general public; but the real reason for the sanctions is political information.” The fact is, society does not approve of political censorship, but supports moral censorship. The expert explained why [the authorities] chose to slow down [Twitter] instead of blocking it. First, a portion of the elite that is nominally more liberal supports normalizing relations with the West. At the same time, it fears the growing influence of the hawks in the Kremlin. Second, [Russia] may simply lack the technology to block [a network]. Finally, [blocking sites] would only add to the growing lack of understanding between the regime and young Russians. Unlike China, the regime did not build the country’s Internet platform, so society is already used to an open Internet. “In the end, the regime decided to slightly slow down social networks. As for blocking those very same Internet giants, that will happen only if ties with the US are severed completely, in case of a new cold war,” said Makarkin. For now, the regime is going to leverage regulations – but that won’t affect the functioning of online giants in any major way. Of course, they are afraid of losing the Russian market, but they also fear condemnation back home over cozying up to the Russian authorities and introducing censorship. So Russia is going to block their operation as much as possible.