Russia has said it will slow down the speed of Twitter as punishment for allegedly failing to remove banned content and threatened the platform with total blocking, in what is widely seen as an escalating effort by authorities to tighten control over foreign social media platforms following recent protests in the country.
Russia's state media watchdog Roskomnadzor on Wednesday announced it was slowing down Twitter on all mobile devices and 50% of non-mobile devices. It comes weeks after Russian authorities warned Twitter and other U.S. social media platforms over posts calling for people to take part in unsanctioned protests against the Kremlin that were triggered by the jailing of the opposition politician Alexey Navalny.
Shortly after the move against Twitter was announced on Wednesday, a large swathe of the Russian government's own public websites suddenly went offline, prompting suspicions that the disruption was linked to the Twitter action and that the government had accidentally brought down its own sites. The authorities denied that but there was no clear explanation for the unusual outages and some cyber security experts said they had found evidence the effort to hobble Twitter had inadvertently taken several other sites including the government ones.
The move to slow down Twitter was viewed as the most serious measure yet by Russia's government against the platform. Russia has generally taken a much more hands-off approach to the internet compared with China, largely refraining from banning major foreign platforms. Although it has demanded for years that U.S. social media companies take down content often linked to protests or critical of the government and threatened fines, Russia's government has shied away from taking the unpopular step of blocking the platforms used by millions of Russians.
Roskomnadzor in its announcement Wednesday did not reference the protests, saying the banned content related to posts connected to child pornography, drug abuse and calls for minors to kill themselves. It warned if Twitter did not comply that sanctions would continue and could include a total block. The Russian government is reportedly suing Twitter, as well as Tik Tok, Google, Facebook and Telegram for allegedly refusing to delete content urging children to take part in the protests, .
Twitter on Wednesday responded by saying it was "deeply concerned by increased attempts to block and throttle online public conversation."
In a statement, a spokesperson for the platform told Reuters it had a "zero-tolerance policy" regarding child sexual exploitation and that it was against its rules to encourage suicide or self-harm or to engage in unlawful behavior, including the buying or selling of drugs.
It was unclear how effective the Russian authorities' attempt to slow down Twitter on Wednesday actually was. Roskomnadzor said the step targeted users' abilities to upload video and photos and not text posts. Some users reported loading issues with their feeds, but many said it was functioning normally for them.
But not long after the announcement, many of the Russian government's public sites suddenly went down, including that of the media watchdog itself. Large numbers of users reported that most of the government's public websites -- including those of the Kremlin, the parliament and senate -- were not opening.
The Russian government and the watchdog denied the problems were related to the Twitter slow down, but Russian internet users and the media quickly speculated a link, recalling a previous botched attempt to block Telegram, the popular encrypted messenger app.
In 2018 when the agency tried to block Telegram, the effort inadvertently knocked offline hundreds of websites, including those of many major companies and government bodies, wreaking havoc on Russia's internet for several days while Telegram continued to function. Authorities eventually lifted the ban after two years of unsuccessfully trying to block the app.
The Russian government said the disruption was caused by a problem with a router at one of Russia's main telecom providers, Rostelecom. The company told Russian media that the disruption was caused by an "equipment failure" and had nothing to do with Twitter.
"It's a technical problem, we are reloading the software right now, things like this happen with programs," Rostelecom's president, told the state news agency TASS.
The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, acknowledged to reporters there appeared to be problems but said he was able to open government websites without any issues.
The site Downdetector that monitors internet usage also showed significant disruption for Rostelecom users starting from mid-Wednesday morning.
Some cyber security experts later Wednesday said they believed they had identified how the effort to slow down Twitter had also brought down the government sites. One expert, who writes under the pseudonym, ValdikSS, wrote that his tests suggested that the media watchdog had targeted all domain names that contain the letters 't.co', a domain name used by Twitter. But many domains used by other companies also include that combination of letters, ValdikSS noted, among them Microsoft, RT.com, the Russian state-funded broadcaster. As a result, when the watchdog targeted those domains it inadvertently also struck many other sites, wrote ValdikSS, who helped create a tool for circumventing internet blocks, AntiZapret.
Some experts and commentators in Russia said they had little doubt the outages were the result of the government's efforts targeting Twitter and said they interpreted it as a warning shot for the platforms.
"On Twitter, people are mostly making jokes about this. But in fact it's clear that this is the first step," Sergey Smirnov, editor of the independent news site Media.Zona wrote on Twitter. Smirnov himself was briefly jailed by a court for retweeting a joke that included the date of a recent protest. He wrote he thought the sudden move against Twitter was likely also intended to show president Vladimir Putin, the authorities were taking action against the platforms.
The government sites' outage also prompted rumors that it could be part of cyber-retaliation by the Biden administration over the large-scale hacking attack infiltrating American government agencies and hundreds of companies that was discovered in December. The Biden administration has been mulling over how to hit back at Russia after the so-called "Solar Winds" hack and The New York Times this week cited anonymous administration officials that preparations were underway for clandestine operations targeting Russian networks. Officials, however, told the newspaper such operations would not be public and would be intended to be evident only to the Kremlin and Russian security services as a signal of the U.S.' capacities. That did not appear to match Wednesday's highly public disruption.
The Kremlin has denied it wants to ban platforms like Twitter and said Russian regulators are only seeking to make them follow the law.
"There was no wish to block anything, however, measures aimed to make these companies obey our laws are quite justified," the Kremlin spokesman, Peskov told reporters Wednesday.
Russia in 2016 successfully blocked LinkedIn for refusing to locate user data in the country and the business app can now only be accessed by virtual private networks. Since then, Russia has moved to tighten its control online, passing legislation giving the state powerful tools for isolating Russia's internet from the rest of the world if it desired. A 2019 law requires providers to install equipment on their systems allowing for so-called Deep Packet Inspection that theoretically lets the state monitor and control internet traffic. But so far, as the failure to block Telegram revealed, it's not at all clear the system functions yet and Russia is still struggling to use it in practice.
Recently, Russia has further beefed up laws relating to the internet and for posting content deemed unacceptable by authorities. In December, Russia's lower house of parliament passed new legislation supporting bigger fines for social media companies for failing to delete content.