Twitter’s “Head of Global Public Policy” is on a peace mission in Moscow. On Monday, he met with head of Russia’s mass media and telecommunications regulatory agency Roskomnadzor to smooth out relations and talk terms.
But there’s one thing that’s causing an inordinate amount of outrage in the news media: Roskomnadzor’s position that Russia law should apply to all Internet content, even if that content is being generated and posted by users outside Russia’s borders.
During the meeting with Twitter, head of Roskomnadzor Alexander Zharov handed over a list of twelve Twitter accounts that that are deemed illegal in Russia — including several accounts associated with Right Sector, a violent Ukrainian neo-fascsit paramilitary group — and asked the company to block and/or remove them.
Zharov explained to the press after the meeting:
“I hope that extremist type of blogs will be deleted. It does not matter where a blog is registered. What’s important is that is written in a language that can be understood by residents of the Russian Federation. This is not about just Russian users. Even if an account is registered in Ukraine, its content will still be considered extremist. The management of Twitter has heard us out and I hope that these accounts will be deleted in the near future.”
Twitter acquiescence to this seemingly innocuous logic has not been received well in some quarters, including by the likes of the great Russian FSB/security state investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov. He sees the selective, geo-targeted blocking of content as just another way western Internet companies are caving to the censorship demands of oppressive governments like Russia.
And it’s true. But it’s hard to see why companies like Twitter that want to grab a chunk of Russia’s market wouldn’t abide by Russian law and comply with Roskomnadzor’s requests for content blocking.
Sure, plenty of people might still cling to the belief that the Internet is somehow special, that it’s a meta-space floating above physical reality and transcending national borders. But the truth is, Internet companies have long been respecting and following local laws across the world. It’s not controversial, and happens every day in countries like India, China, Russia, as well as EU nations like Germany and France.
One of the main landmark rulings that defined and highlighted this trend goes back to 2000, when a French court ruled that Yahoo Inc had to follow French law and stop selling Nazi paraphernalia through its auction website.
France has laws banning the sale and trafficking of Nazi goods. But Yahoo didn’t care. The company’s then-CEO Jerry Yang mocked the French lawsuit, saying that the Internet was beyond the reach of government regulation. “The French tribunal wants to impose a judgement in an area over which it has no control,” he said at the time.
Yahoo special counsel Michael Traynor agreed: “One country is purporting to exercise and impose its standards on a worldwide conversation. It’s fundamentally an interference with freedom of speech and expression.”
They weren’t alone in this kind of thinking.
America was in the grip of End of History euphoria. It was the dawn of a unipolar Pax Americana, the beginning of an endless era of world peace and prosperity. Just about everyone in Silicon Valley believed that the Internet was beyond the reach of the nation state. In fact, many argued that the Internet made the nation state obsolete. “It’s not that laws aren’t relevant, it’s that the nation-state is not relevant,” (not-so-preciently) declared Nicholas Negroponte, the futurist/investor of One Laptop per Child fame.
French courts disagreed with this assessment and eventually won, forcing Yahoo to use inexpensive geo-targeting technology to filter as much of the illegal Nazi content as possible from French territory.
A year later, in 2001, a US District Court ruled that Yahoo! did not have to comply with the French court order because it was protected by First Amendment. But even this decision was later reversed on appeal — two separate times.
In the first case, the court wrote that France was well within its rights to control information within its borders:
“France is within its rights as a sovereign nation to enact hate speech laws against the distribution of Nazi propaganda in response to its terrible experience with Nazi forces during World War II. Similarly, LICRA and UEJF are within their rights to bring suit in France against Yahoo! for violation of French speech law.”
In the second appeal, the court wrote that First Amendment protections don’t apply outside beyond America’s borders:
“Yahoo! is necessarily arguing that it has a First Amendment right to violate French criminal law and to facilitate the violation of French criminal law by others. … The “extent — indeed the very existence — of such an extraterritorial right under the First Amendment is uncertain.”
Naturally, Yahoo complied and eventually pulled all Nazi paraphernalia off its auction sites. Despite all its bluster, profits and market share were more important to Yahoo than clinging to its “right” to sell Nazi gear wherever it pleased.
You can read about the Yahoo vs France Internet fight in the great book “Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World,” but point is this: Content filtering and censorship happens all the time all around the world.
Obviously, these legal restrictions of Internet content can be — and are — abused by repressive regimes to suppress political dissent. We here at Pando have written extensively about this.
But to pretend like all compliance with local hate speech laws is tantamount to totalitarianism is extremely chauvinistic. It elevates American law to global status, while completely disregarding local customs or traditions.
And that’s why I have a problem with much of the outrage surrounding Russia and Twitter.
Russia has a suite of restrictive laws forbidding the distribution of “extremist” content. Ostensibly designed to fight violent terrorism, these vaguely defined laws have been used to stifle political speech and dissent. I have firsthand experience with this. In 2008, the Moscow-based satirical newspaper I co-edited, The eXile, was accused by a Kremlin agency of spreading extremism. Four Kremlin agents descended on our office to conduct an “unplanned urgent audit” of our editorial content, which ultimately forced the paper to close down after more than a decade in business.
In the past few years, Russia has moved to tighten its control over Russia’s Internet space even more, including passing a troubling new law that will soon regulate bloggers — and even Twitter users — who have more than 3,000 followers.
But it is irritating to see western media conflating real political censorship that restricts the freedom of political groups, activists and politicians — be they Alexei Navalny or Edward Limonov — with Russia’s desire to restrict the accounts of an ultra-violent neo-fascist group like Right Sector.
Right Sector is an armed and well-trained paramilitary group that worships Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian supremacist leader who collaborated with the Nazis, fought to establish an ethnically pure Ukraine and whose followers were responsible for liquidating Jews and Poles.
It’s scary a group, and it is closely tied to a network of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist/fascist organizations and political groups, including the Svoboda Party. Svoboda (which means “freedom”) is openly pro-Nazi. Until it did a more media-friendly rebranding in 2004, Svoboda was called the Social-National Party of Ukraine — a overt nod to Hitler’s National Socialist party. It also required members to be ethnically Ukrainian.
The current political aims of Right Sector include establishing a pure Ukrainian state based on traditional Ukrainian language, religion and traditions. As one rank-and-file Right Sector fighter told BBC’s Newsnight, they want “a pure nation — not like under Hitler, but in a way a little bit like that.”
Dmytro Yarosh, Right Sector’s mysterious and scary paramilitary leader, has warned that his group will deal “in a hostile way” with anyone who resists “the Ukrainian people’s national liberation struggle.” Right Sector’s paramilitary forces are at this moment involved in active combat operations against Ukrainians in east Ukraine, and group has been vowing to take their fight to Russian soil.