Russia Tightens Internet Controls, Blocks WeChat

Russia has blocked for internet users in the country as part of a broader crackdown on foreign internet services which fail to comply with domestic regulations. Hong Kong Free Press reports:

“We’re experiencing a block and we’re deeply sorry,” a Tencent official said on a company microblog.

“Russian regulations say online service providers have to register with the government but WeChat doesn’t have the same understanding (of the rules),” the official added.

A spokesman for Russia’s telecoms watchdog Roskomnadzor said the messaging service “did not provide its contact information for the register of information distribution organisations.”

“We are sending letters to iTunes and Google Play to block the app. We await a reaction. If it does not follow, access to the messenger will be limited through telecom providers,” Vadim Ampelonsky told state-run RIA Novosti Friday. [Source]

From the South China Morning Post:

Access to WeChat was restricted on the basis of Article 15.4 of the law on information, information technologies and information security, according to Roskomnadzor, officially known as the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications.

The law, introduced in 2014, requires foreign messaging services, search engines and social networks to store the personal data of Russian users inside Russia. Sites that breach the law are added to a blacklist and internet providers are obliged to block access. The law prompted criticism from internet companies but entered into force in late 2015.

Cheng Yijun, a Russian-relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said there we no signs that the incident was politically motivated. “The issue should be a company legal or commercial event rather than [about the] Sino-Russian relationship.” [Source]

Josh Horwitz at Quartz further reports on the spotty implementation of the Russian internet regulations that WeChat may have run afoul of:

A spokesperson for Roskomnadzor told AFP that the agency blocked WeChat because it did not provide its “contact details” to the register. However, the true cause of the block likely lies in a Russian law passed in 2014 requiring all foreign internet companies to store Russian user data on servers located inside Russia, a requirement China has also imposed.

To date, few major internet companies have complied with the requirement and have faced no consequences as a result. Google and Facebook remain unaffected by the law and continue to operate normally in Russia as they do in most other countries. But not every company has gotten off easy. In 2016 Russian authorities blocked access to LinkedIn, which at the time had 6 million users in the country. In March, Roskomnadzor told media that LinkedIn submitted a letter to the agency saying it had no intentions of storing domestic user data on domestic servers, which “confirmed its lack of interest in working with the Russian market.” It also tweeted out a message announcing LinkedIn’s “death” in Russia.

[…] Since then, Russia has acted more aggressively against foreign internet companies operating in Russia. Early last week it published a notice announcing that several chat apps, including Blackberry Messenger and Japan’s Line, had been blocked.

The WeChat block in particular rings of irony, since China itself is known for imposing tough regulations on foreign internet companies, and enforcing them with ever more vigor. Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter, which operate in Russia largely without issue, remain blocked in China primarily due to qualms about freedom of information. Over the past few years the Chinese government has also blocked Instagram, Snapchat, Flickr, Line, Dropbox, iCloud, Pinterest, and several established news media, like The New York Times. [Source]

While some insist the blocking is due to commercial and legal concerns, Russia has been shoring up its capacity for limiting internet access inside the country, with guidance from the Chinese government. A year ago, China’s Cyberczar Lu Wei and “Father of the Great Firewall” Fang Binxing traveled to Russia to participate in the 7th International Safe Internet forum. Lu Wei’s successor, Xu Lin, also paid a visit to Russia this year:

Last year, Presidents Xi and Putin signed a bilateral agreement touching on several internet-related issues and Moscow has begun to directly incorporate Beijing’s innovations on internet control, including development of the “Red Web,” which includes similar elements to the Great Firewall. Last month, Emily Parker wrote in Slate that Russia is “trying to copy China’s approach to internet censorship,” but that it is “probably too late”:

Moscow clearly admires Beijing’s approach. Last year, former Chinese internet czar Lu Wei and Great Firewall architect Fang Binxing were invited to speak at a forum on internet safety. The Russians were apparently hoping to learn Chinese techniques for controlling the web. Russia has already taken a page or two from China’s playbook. While Facebook and Twitter remain accessible in Russia, at least for now, a Russian court ruled to ban LinkedIn, apparently for breaking rules that require companies to store personal data about Russian citizens inside the country. This could be a warning to companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, which risk being blocked in Russia if they refuse to follow such rules.

Both Russia and China have made clear that they wish to regulate the internet as they see fit, without outside interference. Chinese President Xi Jinping has stressed the importance of internet sovereignty, which essentially means that individual countries should have the right to choose their own model of cyber governance. Putin has taken this idea one step further by calling the internet a “CIA project.” By this logic, Russia needs to proactively protect its own interests in the information sphere whether by cracking down on online dissent or using the internet to spread its own version of events.

[…] Russian blogger Elia Kabanov believes that YouTube is now too big to block. “I doubt the Kremlin will go there,” he said. “They blocked LinkedIn mostly because it was a niche site in Russia and nobody cared. And of course the government propaganda machine is using YouTube a lot, so it wouldn’t make any sense to block it.” If they try to take down protest announcements on platforms on YouTube, Kabanov says, new ones will appear. “I really can’t see the way for the Kremlin to implement the Chinese model now: Everything is too connected, their own agencies are using all these services.” [Source]

Meanwhile, Global Voices gathered responses to Russia’s blocking of WeChat from Chinese netizens, which “ranged from humorous levity to solidarity.”