Russia Restricts Twitter Speed Over Banned Content

MOSCOW—Russia’s communications watchdog said it is slowing the speed of Twitter in the country for failing to delete banned content, escalating its crackdown on internet freedoms.

The regulator, Roskomnadzor, said Wednesday that it would limit the speed of the service on all cellphones and half of stationary devices, such as desktop computers, beginning March 10. The agency said it could block Twitter entirely if it failed to remove banned content linked to suicide, pornography and drugs.

The move against the platform follows a warning by the regulator earlier this month that if the company doesn’t remove the content it could face fines of $100,000 or more. It comes in the aftermath of a wave of protests last month following the detention of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

“In order to protect Russian citizens and force the internet service to comply with the legislation on the territory of the Russian Federation, centralized response measures have been taken against Twitter, namely, the primary slowdown of the service speed,” Roskomnadzor said, adding that there were more than 3,000 posts containing illegal content on the platform.

An official from the agency told the Russian Interfax news agency that the move would affect photo and video content and not text posts.

Russian officials said Wednesday that other online services, including Facebook, could be hit with similar slowdowns.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia isn’t looking to fully block social-media platforms, but it has the right to move against them.

“Russians should be able to have access to all the world’s resources. This is the main goal,” Mr. Peskov told reporters Wednesday. “But it is quite reasonable to take measures to force these companies to comply with our laws.”

Twitter said it was aware of reports that the platform is being “intentionally slowed down broadly and indiscriminately” in Russia. “We remain committed to advocating for the Open Internet around the world and deeply concerned by increased attempts to block and throttle online public conversation,” a spokesman for Twitter said.

Twitter said that it has a zero-tolerance policy regarding child sexual exploitation, that promoting suicide was against its rules and that it doesn’t allow the service to be used for buying and selling of drugs.

Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Twitter was fined $54,000 last year and $41 in 2019 for failing to meet the country’s requirements that its servers used to store Russians’ personal data be located in Russia.

Twitter has also faced pushback in other countries, including Turkey, Egypt, Cuba and the United Arab Emirates, with some governments disrupting or suspending the service during times of protest or political upheaval. The platform is completely blocked in some states, such as China, Iran and North Korea.

Shortly after the Roskomnadzor began to slow down Twitter on Wednesday, some Russian government websites, including the Kremlin’s, suffered brief outages and were temporarily inaccessible for some users. The sites were back online by the afternoon.

Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development blamed the issues on equipment problems at a communications provider and said they were unrelated to the Twitter move. But independent Russian analysts said the events were likely linked and that the outages could have been collateral damage from the regulator’s attempts to restrict Twitter. In 2018, when Roskomnadzor tried to block messaging app Telegram, it also inadvertently shut off other local websites.

In Russia, social-media platforms have been under increasing pressure in recent years as authorities have seen the threat they pose in helping to spread antigovernment discourse and calls to action, including protests.

In the wake of January’s demonstrations, which were the biggest in a decade and centered on shrinking political freedoms and falling living standards as well as Mr. Navalny’s jailing, the communications watchdog demanded social networks remove posts about protests.

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Last year, the lower house of parliament, or Duma, passed a bill giving authorities broader scope to block access to Western social-media sites if they discriminate against Russian media and slap larger fines on them if they fail to delete illegal content. President Vladimir Putin subsequently signed the bill into law.

In a speech at the World Economic Forum in January, Mr. Putin said that tech giants are attempting to “manage society at one’s own discretion and in a tough manner,” restricting people’s right to express themselves freely.

In 2019, Mr. Putin signed a law known as the Sovereign Internet Law, which would allow Russia to effectively cut itself off from the global internet, in a move activists said would tighten government control of cyberspace and stifle free speech. That same year, Russian authorities ordered dating app Tinder to share user data and messages with government and intelligence agencies.

Write to Georgi Kantchev at georgi.kantchev@wsj.com

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