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Facebook and Twitter Face Fines from Russia

A controversial law approved in 2014 by Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, dictated that domestic and foreign companies holding data on Russian citizens must hold it within Russia.

In 2016, Russia blocked LinkedIn, and later tried to block the messaging app Telegram. However, many users are still able to access it via VPN, including senior Russian government officials. This is because Russia has been unable to find an effective way to block the service without taking down unrelated ones.

In April 2019, Alexander Zharov, the head of Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications watchdog, said that western companies had nine months to comply with the law. If they didn’t, they’d receive a series of increasing fines.

To try and push other companies into complying, the watchdog published a list of 175 companies that they claim have agreed to store user data within Russia. This includes apps like Tinder, which have a large market share in Russia, but also services like Snapchat – though they say they had been placed on the list without their knowledge and without signing any agreement.

To start things off, Moscow charged Facebook and Twitter 3000 roubles ($46) over their refusal to comply. Of course, that’s not even a drop in the ocean for those big tech firms, but this is the minimal fine that the law allows – Zharov assured that the charge would increase.

Facebook and Twitter are often used by those who oppose Putin to plan demonstrations and publish investigative documents into alleged corruption. People are concerned that forcing these companies to store data within Russia would give the government backdoor access into user’s private information.

Russia does have a troubled history with internet control. VKontakte, a Russian social network that has 70 million users, was forced to be given up by its founder Pavel Durov after he backed protests against Putin. The service is now owned by a state-friendly billionaire.

A report published in 2019 claimed that there were 200 prosecutions in Russia for “internet activity”, with 38 jail sentences handed down by the court.

Now, a Moscow court has ruled that Facebook and Twitter have continued to ignore the law. They have been fined four million rubles ($63,000), according to Russian news agencies. The companies have 10 days to appeal.

Twitter officials were present at the ruling, but Facebook did send any representatives. They will receive notification of the fine by post.

A law published this December now gives Russia the right to cut traffic from international servers. Putin says he wants to achieve a “sovereign internet”. Theoretically, this is what Facebook and Twitter could face, though some commentators suspect that the banning of these services would cause too much public outrage.

Roskomnadzor said that this fine is just a warning to the companies and they still need to move their servers. If they don’t fall in line within the next year, the regulator said they would be liable to a second fine of 18 million rubles ($280,000).

Whether these larger fines will bother Twitter or Facebook remains to be seen. Given the attitude to the rulings so far, it’s likely not to.


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