The Kremlin made huge advances this week in its crackdown on online activity. On April 19, U.S.-based social media giant Twitter informed Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor that it will comply with Russian government requests and transfer the personal data of its Russian users to databases housed on Russian soil starting in 2018.
Russia passed several anti-terrorism laws in July 2016 that require mobile phone and internet operators to store user data for up to three years. The companies must also provide authorities access to these records, which include texts, calls and online mobile activity. In addition, online services that use encrypted data would be required to help the Federal Security Service (FSB) decipher the messages. Many Western-based companies complied, including eBay and PayPal. Others, however, balked. LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter resisted the measures. In November 2016, Russia countered by blocking LinkedIn for Russian users. Now Twitter has buckled under the pressure and will fully comply with the Kremlin's requirements.
Twitter has long been a loophole for social media protest organizers. That loophole appears set to close soon because the Kremlin will have access to that medium.
Roskomnadzor also asked providers of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other anonymizers April 17 to restrict user access to blacklisted sites. (Anonymizers and VPNs are popular in places like Russia and China — they allow users to bypass restrictions on blocked sites by routing data through a proxy server based abroad.) Markus Saar, the general director a major VPN service called "HideMy.Name," said that even when his firm complied, the government continued blocking his website and called on him to restrict user access.
These moves come as protests have sprung up across Russia over continued economic stagnation and the Kremlin's lack of response. Protest leaders have made extensive use of social media to organize the events and the Kremlin has been actively removing and blocking Russian social media blasts on VKontakte and YouTube.
Twitter has long been a loophole for social media protest organizers. That loophole appears set to close soon because the Kremlin will have access to that medium. The use of VPN and other anonymizers was another big gap in the Kremlin's ability to crack down on social media and users ability to reach unsanctioned sites — such as some foreign sites unavailable in country. But it will be important to see how Russia uses this tool to also target Russia-bound foreign businessmen, who use company VPNs to access their corporate materials.