Word on the street is that Colin Crowell, Twitter’s “Head of Global Public Policy” is headed to Moscow. His mission: To sue for peace and mend the company’s rocky relationship with the Russian government.
We here at Pando have reported on Russia’s recent moves to tighten control over Russia’s Internet space, including a troubling new law that will soon regulate bloggers — and even Twitter users — who have more than 3,000 followers.
Twitter’s been pissing Russia off more than any other Silicon Valley Internet company. Until recently, it has stubbornly refused to honor most of Russia’s requests to remove/censor illegal content from its network. The conflict seemed come to a head last month when Maxim Ksenzov, deputy head of Russia’s mass media and telecommunications regulatory agency Roskomnadzor, complained in an interview about Twitter’s behavior and bragged that he had the power to “block the Twitter or Facebook in Russia within several minutes even tomorrow” if he felt like it.
Naturally, all hell broke loose. U.S. news media and neocon Russian watchers latched on to this comment, blowing it out of proportion and hysterically predicting the imminent demise of Twitter in Russia. “Russian regulator threatens to block Twitter” … “Russian Official Threatens To Block Twitter And Facebook In Russia” … “Countdown to the End of Twitter in Russia” — are just a few of the headlines.
Was it really so bad? Is Russia about to block Twitter — like Turkey did a few weeks ago? One thing is for sure: Ksenzov’s comment was wildly taken out of context and blown out proportion. It also got an immediate rebuke from Prime Mister Dmitry Medvedev for it. Medvedev took to (of all places) Facebook to administer a public smack down of the chinovnik, saying that he was a big fan of social media and that Ksenzov was an idiot for making such wild, idle threats about shutting down a service used and loved by many Russians.
All the outrage over Ksenzov’s comments shutting down Twitter obscured the rest of his interview with Izvestia, which was actually very interesting. It offered a glimpse into how the Russian government views and interacts with American Internet giants like Google and Twitter, and touched on a potential economic and money side of this conflict: Russia’s ongoing attempt to get Internet companies to stop dodging taxes.
I did a rough translation of parts of the interview…
On Silicon Valley and Google in particular:
“There exists a general problem in our interaction with companies of American origin: Facebook, Twitter and Google. Twitter and Facebook do not have a legal presence in Russia. Google does have a representative in Russia, with whom we do communicate. But from their side this communication frequently resembles a sort of game. Sometimes [local Google reps] make decisions and act on their own. In other cases, they shrug and pretend that nothing depends on them, and point to Google’s overseas corporate lawyers and managers. When it comes to money — everything depends on [local Google reps]. But in cases when the government tries to enforce its legal demands, their representative their powers are suddenly and sharply reduced. Meanwhile, [Google's] operation in Russia is a business that brings in profits. This money comes from Russian citizens and does not stay in the Russia, but gets taken out of the country. And they do not pay taxes in Russia. Its the same with every other foreign Internet company that provides content or services in our country — Apple, for example.
On difference between Google and Twitter:
“Twitter is a purely American company. They don’t have any foreign representatives offices. It seems like it has plans to open an office in Dublin, but not for the purpose of developing their business there, but out of a desire for a more comfortable tax environment. This points to the fact that Twitter is not overly concerned with the particular audience of the countries they operate in. They are not interested in local markets. They use their users as political instruments — and by politics, I mean commercial politics. I’m talking about their promotion of their corporate interests and the interests of the country in which they are legally based. And I think that this is [Twitter's] main difference from Google. Google acts more like a transnational corporation, whose corporate interests prevail over those of individual governments. Google’s capitalization is comparable to that of a budget of a country with a sizable economy. Google is involved in lots of commercial and humanitarian projects that are oriented to localized audiences. In terms of its interaction with various governments around the world, Google is flexible — but only when flexibility brings bigger rewards that staying true to their principles.
Facebook has an representative in Sweden. It covers operations in Northern Europe, Scandinavian countries, Russia and, if I’m not mistaken, Asia. They have a Russian-speaking manager who works out of company’s office in London and frequently communities with us. … Unlike Google, Facebook’s actions are for the most part clear and consistent. For example, it regularly complies requests of the General Prosecutor to limit access to Right Sector groups. “
“Twitter categorically refuses to delete illegal content. A lot of extremist content is spread in particular spread through this network. One of few accounts that we succeeded in getting deleted had published monstrous things. The account was in Russian and published information about Syria with photos of executed people, with appeals to overthrow the government and the destruction of capitalism as a system. Sometimes, things that are universally classified by the international community as something that’s absolutely unacceptable — for example terrorist propaganda — are freely spread by American Internet companies. This is impossible to explain from the position of freedom of speech.
“…I had several videoconferences with Twitter representatives. The company employs several tens of employees work in the company — management is dispersed. The employee who is responsible cooperating/interfacing with other countries is a former adviser of the US Secretary of Energy. [This seems like a mistake. Ksenzov is talking about Colin Crowell, Twitter's "Head of Global Public Policy." Crowell used to be a staffer for Congressman Ed Markey, who sat on U.S. House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology — which exists within the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. — YL]“
Twitter as a platform that’s particularly conducive to spreading political propaganda:
“I have a serious feeling that Twitter is a global tool for promoting/pushing political information. In interacting with us, [Twitter] uses its audience as a means of achieving its goals. The importance of a user as a person, his interests for this company are reduced to the level of a plinth/pedestal. In constantly refusing to carry out our requests, it deliberately creates conditions in which the blocking of this resource in our country becomes almost inevitable.”
This part about Twitter being a tool to spread political propaganda earned Ksenzov a lot of sneers. But behind the paranoia, many Russians see some truth.
Remember how the US State Department asked Twitter to delay scheduled middle of the night website maintenance/upgrade in order to not disrupt anti-government protest tweeting in Iran during a wave of demonstrations back in 2009?
Or how USAID funneled millions of dollars into a failed Twitter-like startup in Cuba? Its goal was to network the hip youth, get them chatting online and then whip this mass of connected kids into a frothing regime change movement.
Ksenzov may have been slapped down for explicitly threatening Twitter, but he’s not the only Russian official who views the company as a potential dangerous American propaganda tool. Colin Crowell’s peace mission might be trickier than he expects.
Want to know more? Read “Putin ramps up Internet censorship, citing Google and Snowden to ensure public support“