Why foreign social networks are not banned in Russia

Tagansky Court of Moscow on August 26 fined Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp 15 million, 17 million and 4 million rubles, respectively, for the lack of localization of databases of Russian users in Russia.

The law requiring Internet companies to store data of Russian users within the borders of the Russian Federation came into force back in 2015. Social networks and messengers ignored it. In 2019, penalties were introduced in the CAO for non-compliance with the law, but it turned out that these fines can also be paid “at will. Some, like Facebook, pay the fines and continue to operate as they did before, while others (Twitter, for example) do not pay them. And

continues to work, too.

Roskomnadzor’s claims against foreign Internet services are not just limited to failure to comply with data localization requirements. In May of this year, Google was once again fined $6 million for failure to remove links to content banned in Russia; earlier, Roskomnadzor threatened Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram with fines for not removing appeals to teenagers to attend unsanctioned rallies on January 23 as requested by the authorities, and so on and so forth.

Some remove content that, from the point of view of Russian officials, is undesirable, while others don’t. But in the end, it turns out that Facebook and Google and their subsidiaries, as well as Twitter, are working quite quietly in Russia, and they do it the way they see fit. The vast majority of the audience is not affected in any way by their fights with the regulator.

Of course, foreign social networks and messengers annoy the Russian authorities – they are primarily perceived by officials as uncontrollable communication platforms for citizens who are disloyal to the political establishment. But in the vast majority of cases, Roskomnadzor does not go beyond fines, which are inconspicuous compared to the revenues of the world’s largest digital corporations (even if they pay them). Loyal and/or apolitical users of foreign Internet services are disproportionately more numerous than dissidents: the monthly audience of Facebook in Russia is about 10-15 million users, Instagram has about 40 million, and WhatsApp has about 60 million. In fact, this messenger is the main means of communication for Russians after the classic telephone communication – it is installed on 9 out of 10 Russian smartphones.

In terms of the level of negative public reaction, the possible blocking of WhatsApp can be compared to the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign of the second half of the 1980s – such a radical move will definitely not add to the popularity of the government. Roskomnadzor understands this and does not make any drastic steps.

Blocking messengers and social networks is a thankless measure in the technical sense as well. As Roskomnadzor’s exercise with Telegram showed, for the time that the messenger has been officially blocked in Russia, its popularity has only grown: VPNs and the use of proxy servers have nullified all the activities of the regulator. Moreover, after each public mention of Telegram by officials, the number of downloads of Pavel Durov’s app only grew – because even those who were not previously familiar with his project learned about it.

But Roskomnadzor cannot do absolutely nothing. And the agency fights for compliance with the law with soft methods. Which yields modest results. To turn a blind eye to social networks’ disregard for the rules adopted in Russia is not an option, but to deprive tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Russian users of access to them would be more costly.

That is why, by the way, it was Twitter that received the most serious demonstrative flogging in Russia, access to which was slowed down by Roskomnadzor in March of this year. It happened after the microblogging service had ignored Roskomnadzor’s orders for four years, as the agency itself admitted. At the same time, Twitter has very few active users in Russia – at the beginning of the 4th quarter of 2020, there were less than 700,000 of them. In other words, this activity by Roskomnadzor did not affect mass users in any way.

It is hardly worth expecting the regulator to take any radical steps. Of course, it is possible to refer to the experience of China, where blocking Western services works very well. But Chinese users have long ago been living in a virtual world markedly different from the Russian one: they deal with powerful ecosystems containing messengers, payment services, online stores, and much more (the most striking example of such an ecosystem is Tencent).

In Russia, such ecosystems are just beginning to form, and it is not known whether they will reach the same scale and scope as Chinese ones. Therefore, Russians cannot do without imported communication products for the time being – this is so obvious to everyone, including officials not too knowledgeable in the Internet, that we need not worry about the fate of foreign social networks and messengers in the Russian market in the coming years.