Does Russia need Twitter more than Twitter needs Russia?

Just how badly do they want to keep it?
Just how badly do they want to keep it?
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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In 2015, Russia began requiring internet companies to store Russian users’ personal data inside Russia itself—or else be blocked. The measure, part of a broad swath of moves (paywall) aimed at increasing online censorship, was decried by organizations like Human Rights Watch as “taking Big Brother surveillance to a new level.” (Moscow claims it just wants to protect private citizens’ data.)

Google and Apple have complied with the law (link in Russian), but so far social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have held out. LinkedIn was the first to face the consequences—a Russian court banned it from the country in November 2016. Subsequent attempts by the network to win over Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications watchdog, have so far failed.

Now Twitter seems to be the next head on the block. On April 20, Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov released a quote (link in Russian) from a seemingly private letter from Twitter vice president Sinead McSweeney, saying that Twitter was reviewing “what information about Russian citizens/organizations involved in commercial relationships with Twitter in Russia could be stored in the Russian Federation.” According to the quote, Twitter would be in a position to move that data to Russia around the middle of 2018.

After a reported meeting (link in Russian) between Russian officials and McSweeney last month, Zharov’s leak seems an attempt to force Twitter into taking a public position. Twitter declined to comment publicly on Zharov’s statement, but a source familiar with the matter confirmed that Twitter was reviewing its compliance with the law, though only for data relating to advertisers. The “overriding priority” is that Russian users and their accounts not be vulnerable, the source said. Twitter, meanwhile, seems to be trying to drag out the process of compliance as long as possible to avoid being shut down while keeping its users’ data safe.

Russia has more reason to keep Twitter functioning in the country than it did LinkedIn: Twitter is a crucial cog in the disinformation campaign the Kremlin has used to target elections in the US and Europe. It is widely reported (paywall) to have hired “troll armies” that use Twitter and other social networks to spread false information about the West. That perhaps gives the social network some leverage. But for how long?