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Russia blocks Facebook, Twitter access

 Amid a crackdown on demonstrators and independent media outlets, the Kremlin blocked access to Facebook and Twitter on Friday.

Russian telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, said the decision to block Facebook was made in response to the platform’s alleged “discrimination” against Russian media, citing 26 cases since October 2020.

Nick Clegg, president of global affairs for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said in a statement on Twitter: “Soon, millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out. We will continue to do everything we can to restore our services so they remain available to people to safely and securely express themselves and organize for action.”

Early Friday evening, Meta released another statement announcing advertisers in Russia would be cut off from Facebook: “Despite the Russian government’s announcement that they will be blocking Facebook, we are working to keep our services available to the greatest extent possible. However, due to the difficulties of operating in Russia at this time, ads targeting people in Russia will be paused, and advertisers within Russia will no longer be able to create or run ads anywhere in the world, including within Russia.”

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, confirmed the Twitter ban in a Telegram post, and likened the move to something out of a George Orwell book.

But a spokesperson for Twitter told CBS News that while the company is aware of reports of a ban, the platform does not currently see anything “significantly different” from what it has previously shared.

The stripped access followed moves by Russia on Thursday to cut entry to several foreign news organizations’ websites, including the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle and other media outlets.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the Kremlin has added over 5,000 websites to its “denylist,” according to the research and security firm Top 10 VPN. While some banned websites include routine regulation, over 80 news outlets and 30 financial sites have been stripped of access since February 24th.

Simon Migliano, head of research for Top 10 VPN, told CBS News that Russia has recently been focused on shutting down Russian-language news. “There was a big push just after the invasion,” Migliano told CBS News.

It absolutely feels like a coordinated and strategic campaign, going after the big Ukraine language news sites first. Now they’re expanding out to big foreign news sites with a large following in Russia that are following the invasion.”

Russia began blocking financial sites on Monday as the value of the ruble plummeted. The bans include foreign exchange and crypto platforms that would allow Russians to trade money to another currency.

The official announcement of a Facebook ban also followed several days of the Russian government throttling access to social media platforms, in what Roskomnadzor called a “partial” block. That throttling — or the intentional slowing down of internet speed — followed Meta’s refusal to stop independent fact-checking of Russian state-backed media.

Users reported internet speeds so slow when entering sites from Russian IP addresses, that it rendered them unusable, even though an official ban had not been in place.

On Monday, Facebook and Instagram restricted access to Russian state media across the European Union after receiving requests from the E.U. and several other governments to make such a move. Two days later, Twitter confirmed it would impose similar regulations in Europe, following the EU’s announcement of sanctions on state-backed media, RT and Sputnik.

At the time, Twitter said its “global approach outside of the E.U.” would focus on de-amplifying state-affiliated media content through labeling. “We continue to advocate for a free and open internet, particularly in times of crisis,” said Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough.

But the Kremlin also began throttling Twitter last week, according to data from the global internet watchdog Netblocks, that recorded restricted access across several Russian telecommunications service providers.

Alp Toker, Founder and Director of Netblocks, told CBS News that throttling is a deliberate tool of information warfare routinely employed by the Russians to create further uncertainty.

“The only real motivator for throttling a platform to this extent is to create ambiguity and confusion around the restriction itself,” Toker said, adding that the resulting slow service provides the Russian government with plausible deniability.

“When a website loads partially, your first response is to blame a poor internet connection, not the government or country. This ambiguity is a space in which misinformation can thrive in and of itself.”

Migliano noted he’s surprised that the Kremlin has not blocked even more sites — including English language webpages.

But as more and more Russians turn to VPN services to circumvent internet restrictions, demand for VPNs has climbed almost 700% higher than it was prior to the invasion, according to Top 10 VPN.

“I think there will increasingly be this question of how do you get through to people,” Toker noted. “As we’ve watched our metrics in the past few days, we’ve seen such a rapid closing of the online space, it’s looking like we may be met with a new Iran or China when it comes to connectivity.”

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