We've had ongoing discussions on this site about the ham-fisted website censorship policy that Russia has undertaken over the past few years. While the country was never one to embrace free and open speech and communication to the same degree as Western nations, recent times have seen a severe uptick in outright censorship with a variety of excuses rolled out for public consumption: copyright laws, stifling political opposition, and the protection of the privacy of public figures. The funnel point for all of this censorship is Russian agency Rozcomnadzor, itself the subject of corruption allegations, with a track record for racking up collateral damage numbers that would make any nation's army blush.
Through it all, there have been suggestions that entire sites with massive global followings would be blocked. YouTube and Twitter were previously found to be in the crosshairs of the Russian government, but nothing immediately came of the threat. Now, however, both YouTube and Instagram may face a very real choice: bow to the censorship demands of Rozcomnadzor or face full site-blocks in Russia. And, perhaps most strangely, this has all come to a head over a Russian billionaire's win in court to block the publication of photos and videos showing him on a yacht with what is reportedly an escort.
Russia may block access to YouTube and Instagram after billionaire Oleg Deripaska won a court injunction against videos and photographs that showed him and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko relaxing on a yacht with a woman described as an escort.
Deripaska won an order from the Ust-Labinsk district court in his native Krasnodar region ordering the removal of 14 Instagram posts and seven YouTube videos that breached his right to privacy, according to a spokeswoman for his Basic Element company. Anti-Kremlin campaigner Alexey Navalny said the order also threatens to block his website after he published an online film alleging that the videos and photographs posted by Anastasiya Vashukevich, who goes by the name Nastya Rybka, showed evidence of a corrupt relationship between the aluminum tycoon and the senior minister.
Following the court order, Roskomnadzor dutifully added the photo and video material to its list of things that must be censored and contacted YouTube and Instagram to order it to take the material off of its site or face being blocked throughout the country. For his part, Deripaska insists he just wants the specific photos and videos removed, not access to these entire sites. But from the point of view of the Russian censors, they don't have the ability to block access to just that material, or to the accounts posting them. Instead, this will come down to YouTube and Instagram either participating in the censorship or being blocked outright.
“It’s impossible for internet providers to block certain pages on Instagram and YouTube,” and they’ll have to block the services unless the material singled out by the watchdog is deleted, said Karen Kazaryan, chief analyst at the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, an internet lobby group. There’s also a “high chance that Navalny may need to remove this information to avoid being blocked.”
According to Navalny, Google has already informed him that he needs to remove the material in question or his account will be banned. The video is still up as of the time of this writing, but if Google indeed tried to bow to the censors in Russia, that needs to be called out. The context here is that Navalny is a member of the political opposition to the Russian government and his posts on this topic have as much to do with accusations of an improper relationship between the billionaire and the Deputy Prime Minister as it does of sordid relationships with escorts. In fact, it's quite likely that the former accusations are the real target here, while the photographs are simply the lightning rod drawing attention to them. If Google is actively seeking to participate in the censorship of political speech in that manner, that's not a good look.
Navalny, for his part, is seeking to use this attempted censorship to his political advantage via the Streisand Effect.
The action against his investigation is “a brazen act of censorship,” Navalny wrote on his website, which also remained accessible on Tuesday. “I urge everyone to spread this video wherever you can.”
And that's already occurred, with millions of views of these videos and pictures already logged and the numbers continuing to climb. Whatever the outcome of the decision to censor YouTube and Instagram entirely or not, it should be clear that American companies ought not help corrupt foreign governments silence their political opponents.