Twitter Denies Agreeing to Block Extremist Posts in Russia

Jun 24, 2014 5:24 am ET

(Updates with comment from regulator in fifth paragraph.)

June 24 (Bloomberg) -- Twitter Inc. said it hasn’t agreed to block extremist accounts in Russia, rebutting earlier statements by the country that access was being restricted.

Instead, the San Francisco-based microblogging service said it’s been showing Russian officials how to report illegal content so that it could be withheld in the country, without committing to remove any specific accounts.

Colin Crowell, Twitter’s public policy chief, met with Alexander Zharov, head of Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor, yesterday. Russia is seeking to block content that it considers extremist, such as that of Ukrainian national groups. Zharov told reporters after the meeting that Twitter had agreed to prevent access to about 10 accounts.

“That claim is inaccurate, as we did not agree to remove the accounts,” Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Twitter, said in a statement. The company about a month ago blocked the account of Ukraine’s Pravyi Sektor group in Russia, but hasn’t removed other political accounts.

The Russian communications watchdog today clarified its statement.

“Roskomnadzor passed Twitter information of 12 microblogs, the content of which was defined as extremist by Russia’s general prosecutor’s office,” spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky said. “Roskomnadzor is hoping for a positive decision of Twitter administration about removal of these accounts or blocking access to them on Russian territory.”

Shutdown Threat

Internet services from outside Russia are trying to navigate stricter rules to remain in Europe’s biggest Web market by users. President Vladimir Putin, facing sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union over his annexation of Crimea, said in April his government needs to impose greater control over information flows through the Web, which the former KGB colonel called a creation of U.S. spy agencies.

Russia introduced a rule in February that gives authorities the power to block without a court ruling websites deemed either extremist or a threat to public order.

While not having direct authority over global companies that have no offices in Russia, Roskomnadzor threatened to block access to Twitter and Facebook Inc. if they don’t comply with the new regulations, the Izvestia newspaper reported last month, citing an official from the agency. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rebuked the official for his comments the next day, after saying that both users and networks should obey Russian legislation.

Local Servers

Twitter is eager to discuss Russia’s new rules with regulators, Crowell told reporters ahead of the meeting with Roskomnadzor during what was the first official visit to the country by the company’s executives.

Twitter has about 8 million Russian users, according to Zharov. Globally, Twitter’s monthly active users reached 255 million in the first quarter.

Russia is also introducing a law requiring Internet companies to locate servers handling Russian traffic inside the country, similar to Chinese rules, and store user data for six months. The legislation, set to become law on Aug. 1, also classifies bloggers with 3,000 or more readers -- about 30,000 people -- as akin to media outlets, making them and their hosts liable for content and subject to regulation.

That means Twitter will need to keep all Russian user logs -- the data on when a user is logged in and to whom he or she sends messages, though not the content of the communications -- on servers located in the country, Zharov said.

China’s Path

In order to comply with global laws while not over- censoring the site, Twitter has a policy of withholding banned content only in the country where it is illegal and report the removal to Chilling Effects, a site that keeps track of censorship.

On March 13, Roskomnadzor temporarily shut access to half a dozen sites, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s, to impede efforts to hold unsanctioned rallies against Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The regulator also closed 13 Ukrainian groups on VKontakte, a Russian site similar to Facebook.

Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt said last year that Russia was “on the path” toward China’s model of Internet censorship.

--With assistance from Scott Rose in Moscow.