What’s the difference between Russia’s internet before and after the invasion of Ukraine? The answer: a thirtyfold increase in censorship.
That was the finding of a report published on Wednesday by Citizen Lab, a group from the University of Toronto that studies online censorship in authoritarian countries. The new report was one of the first attempts to quantify the extent of Russian internet censorship since the war began in February 2022.
To compile its findings, Citizen Lab analyzed more than 300 court orders from the Russian government against Vkontakte, one of the country’s largest social media sites, demanding that it remove accounts, posts, videos and other content. Before the war, Russia’s government issued internet takedown orders to Vkontakte, known as VK, once every 50 days on average. After the conflict began, that number jumped to nearly once a day, according to Citizen Lab.
To continue reading this New York Times report, see:
Not OK on VK An Analysis of In-Platform Censorship on Russia’s VKontakte
- This report examines the accessibility of certain types of content on VK (an abbreviation for “VKontakte”), a Russian social networking service, in Canada, Ukraine, and Russia.
- Among these countries, we found that Russia had the most limited access to VK social media content, due to the blocking of 94,942 videos, 1,569 community accounts, and 787 personal accounts in the country.
- VK predominantly blocked access to music videos and other entertainment content in Canada, whereas, in Russia, we found VK blocked content posted by independent news organizations, as well as content related to Ukrainian and Belarusian issues, protests, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) content. In Ukraine, we discovered no content that VK blocked, though the site itself is blocked to varying extents by most Internet providers in Ukraine.
- In Russia, certain types of video content were inaccessible on VK due to the blocking of the accounts of the people or communities who posted them. These individuals and groups were often targeted for their criticism of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin or of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Additionally, accounts belonging to these communities and people have been restricted from VK search results in Russia using broad, keyword-based blocking of LGBTIQ terms.
- We collected over 300 legal justifications which VK cited in justification of the blocking of videos in Russia. Notably, we discovered a 30-fold increase in the rate of takedown orders issued against VK in an eight month period following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
While China is known for fostering its own ecosystem of social media platforms such as the chat app WeChat and microblogging platform Weibo and blocking their American counterparts (e.g., WhatsApp and Twitter), Russia has allowed access to WhatsApp and Twitter, but has also put a considerable effort into deploying and promoting Russian equivalents. For example, VK and Odnoklassniki, which are roughly Facebook equivalents, Rutube, a Russian equivalent of YouTube, and Yandex which is equivalent to Google Search. In 2022, Runniversalis, a pro-Kremlin version of Wikipedia was launched, reminiscent of Chinese efforts such as Baidu Baike to create a domestic clone of Wikipedia. Although many North American social media platforms remain accessible in Russia, Russia eventually blocked Facebook and Twitter following the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Chinese social media platforms, which are known to apply pervasive political and religious censorship to their Chinese users, take a variety of approaches to treating their non-Chinese users who may have different expectations concerning freedom of speech. While many platforms such as Weibo apply their political censorship even to users outside of China, others such as WeChat, in a bid to try to appeal to non-Chinese users, apply fewer speech restrictions to them. Other companies, such as Bytedance, take the approach of maintaining distinct platforms inside China (Douyin) versus elsewhere (TikTok). Like Chinese platforms, Russian platforms are also known to perform political censorship. However, the mechanisms the latter use to apply censorship, what topics they censor, and if or how those mechanisms apply to users outside of Russia are issues that are still understudied in the research on information controls.
Internet censorship in Russia is enforced through a variety of legal mechanisms. The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), as the Internet regulator, maintains a centralized “blacklist” governing the blocking of IP addresses, domain names, and unencrypted HTTP URLs, which Internet service providers (ISPs) in Russia are legally obliged to implement. However, the censorship of social media content, which, due to HTTPS encryption, cannot be individually blocked by ISPs, is maintained through other legal mechanisms such as court orders. Multiple government (e.g., the Roskomnadzor and the office of the Prosecutor General) and non-government agencies (e.g., Rosmolodezh, the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs) can apply for a court order to have websites blocked, in which they typically appeal to one of Russia’s multiple laws governing Internet content. These laws often contain vague terms concerning the content they prohibit, including “нарушением установленного порядка” [violation of the established order], “нецензурную брань” [obscene language], “явное неуважение к… органам, осуществляющим государственную власть в Российской Федерации” [blatant disrespect for… bodies exercising state power in the Russian Federation], and “Пропаганда нетрадиционных сексуальных отношений и (или) предпочтений” [propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations and (or) preferences]. These laws have been used to justify political censorship of Internet content, particularly content critical of Putin or other Russian leadership, and to justify the restriction of the rights of LGBTIQ communities. Furthermore, according to a law which went into effect in February 2021, social media platforms are required to implement blocking proactively, as opposed to merely in response to court orders. Previous research studying Chinese social media censorship has shown how deferring blocking decisions to the private sector gives rise to inconsistent blocking across companies, with platforms often “overblocking” to ensure that they have covered all of the bases to avoid legal repercussions for insufficiently blocking content.
In this report, we study VKontakte [ВКонтакте], commonly abbreviated as “VK,” which is the most popular social media platform in Russia. VK is similar to Facebook in that it provides personal accounts, messaging, music and video hosting, and other community features. The platform is divided into three broad organizational categories: videos, communities or clubs, and people. VK has a complicated history concerning Russian censorship. The platform was founded in 2006 by Pavel Durov, who is also known for founding Telegram Messenger. Durov was dismissed as VK’s chief executive officer (CEO) in 2014, allegedly for failing to hand over the data of Russian political protesters to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the country’s security agency. Durov was also targeted for failing to ban a VK community advocating for Alexei Navalny, a political opponent of Putin. Durov additionally claimed that the platform had come under “full control” of “Kremlin insiders” after the platform was sold to Alisher Usmanov, an oligarch loyal to Putin. In 2021, VK’s then-CEO Boris Dobrodeev resigned following the takeover of the company by state-owned companies. Analysts speculated that this state takeover could lead to “greater interference” by the Russian government.
In addition to criticism due to censorship, VK has been criticized by the digital security community as a platform that is unsafe for activists. This allegation was made on account of the personal information which it collects and due to VK joining the Register of Organizers of Distribution of Information in the Internet Network, a special list of platforms that must provide user data on request to the FSB and Russian police. Several waves of “exodus” of users from VK have been documented — the earliest one corresponding to the year of Durov’s departure — due to fears of government surveillance and legal harassment.
In this work, we are interested in measuring how VK implements political censorship in the context of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022. Our research includes identifying what mechanisms VK uses to enforce censorship, what type of content is censored, and if or how this censorship applies to users outside of Russia. Specifically, we measure the accessibility of content on VK from different countries or vantage points to uncover instances of differential censorship, i.e., content which is censored in one region but not another. This allows us, for example, to determine which content is visible in Canada but not in Russia, and vice versa. In this report, we focus on comparing content availability from Russia, Ukraine, and Canada.
The remainder of this report is structured as follows: In the “Methodology” section, we detail our methods for uncovering VK’s differing censorship across countries, and, in “Experimental setup,” we explain the conditions and implementation details in which we executed these methods. Furthermore, in “Results,” we reveal our findings concerning the pervasive political and social censorship which VK applies to users in Russia. In “Limitations,” we review the limitations of our experiment, and finally, in “Discussion,” we discuss how our findings contribute to a greater understanding of Internet censorship in Russia and how Russian social media censorship compares to censorship elsewhere.