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Russia and Turkey’s social media restrictions signal more surveillance in the future

Both Turkey and Russia have adopted increasingly harsher legislation to monitor content on social media as part of a larger crackdown on dissent. An increasing appetite for online content is combined with more effective strategies to monitor citizens and journalists online, which was the departure point for the speakers of the RightsCon panel titled Autocratic copycats? Russia and Turkey stifle social media. The panel was co-hosted by MLSA and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF), which is also among the sponsors of the RightsCon Summit, on June 10.

Adrian Shahbaz, Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House; Russian  investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, whose work has exposed extensive electronic eavesdropping and surveillance in Russia and freedom of expression lawyer Zelal Pelin Doğan of MLSA were the speakers at the panel, moderated by MLSA Co-Director Barış Altıntaş.

In her opening remarks Dr. Michaela Lissowsky, the Senior Advisor for Human Rights & Rule of Law at FNF, said freedom from censorship is an important element of freedom of expression, stating that FNF’s work across the globe is supporting those fighting for free speech and liberal ideals.

“Hard to tell what’s considered illegal”

Speaking about the current situation in Russia with digital rights and social media, Borogan said immensely restrictive legislation has made it difficult to navigate what is allowed and what is not permitted online. “Disrespecting authorities, calls for participation in protests, can all be criminalized,” she said, giving the example of a user who was imprisoned after posting a cartoon toothpaste tube with the caption “Squeeze Russia out of yourself” on a social network page. The phrase is a reference to a letter from Anton Chekhov to a friend in which he spoke of needing “to squeeze the slave out of us, drop by drop.”

The poster which caused its sharer, Andrei Bubeev, to get a prison sentence.

Speaking about the increase in surveillance, Soldatov said internet providers in Russia are required by law to have a backdoor giving access to security agencies, increasingly employing DPI technology and compensating providers for the financial burden of installing the necessary infrastructure from state funds. Recalling Russia’s ambitions to set up a “sovereign” internet, Soldatov said the backdoors also make it possible to redirect traffic from or to particular regions. “For example if you have particular problems in a region and you do not want the protests to spread to other regions you can cut off internet from or to this region” he said, adding that this system was becoming increasingly effective

“Journalists, activists only have social media to be heard”

Speaking about recent legislation in Turkey, Doğan said following the coup attempt in 2016, most of the country’s media outlets were shut down and 2000 journalists had lost jobs. “Currently, 95% of the media is under government control. As a result, journalists have started using social media instead of conventional media; activists and rights groups also use social media to make their voices heard,” she said.

Stating that in 2020, Turkey passed a new law making it compulsory for platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to appoint local representatives, she said part of the law focuses on having companies store user data locally. “It completely removes data security,” she said.

Stating that Freedom House’s research shows that anti-encryption laws, forcing companies to remove “illegal” content and having platforms to appoint local representatives are developments spreading around the world, Shahbaz added that these steps are often combined with throttling social media platforms.

He noted that among other examples, Vietnam and India have taken similar steps. “For example India’s information technology rules force companies to appoint representatives and limit access to non-complying platforms, compel platforms to retain user data for 180 days even after account has been deleted.” Shahbaz said WhatsApp has recently challenged this in court, explaining that sometimes court challenges could work to stop restrictive legislation.

The speakers also discussed whether technical solutions could work for some users. Borogan said for known journalists speaking publicly, no technical solutions could work but in terms of communicating with sources, tools such as secure messengers or using encryption to protect content in case of physical seizures of a device could be helpful.

Another discussion focused on the worldwide role of platforms. A recent publication titled Platform-proofing Democracy published by the FNF on questions revolving around the power of social media platforms was shared during the panel.

The panel ended with questions and comments from the audience.