Facebook should stop cooperating with Russian government censorship

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Washington Post reports that Facebook has complied with a Russian government demand to block access to a page supporting Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny:

In a sign of new limits on Facebook's ability to serve as a platform for political opposition movements, Russian users appear to have been blocked from accessing a page calling for a protest in support of a prominent dissident.

In 2011, Facebook was hailed by opposition movements during the Arab Spring and in Russia as a powerful new tool to spread information beyond the control of repressive governments. That may no longer be the case, at least not in Russia. Russian Internet regulators said Saturday that they had sent Facebook a "demand" that it block access to a page calling for a demonstration in support of Alexei Navalny, the most prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin….

"At the moment, the demand" to block the page "is being fulfilled" by Facebook, Vadim Ampelonsky, a spokesman for the Russian Internet regulator, told the Interfax news service.

Facebook should be ashamed of cooperating with this demand for censorship by Russia's repressive government, and should rescind that cooperation immediately. In fairness, the Post article quotes a Facebook spokeswoman to the effect that the company is studying the matter. But she didn't deny the Russian government's claim that Facebook has "fulfilled" its demand, and the site does indeed seem to be blocked for Russian users. If it turns out that the Russian government somehow managed to block the site without Facebook's cooperation and is now lying about that, I will be happy to correct this post. For now, however, the available evidence strongly suggests that Facebook did in fact "fulfill" the government's demands.

If the problem is that Facebook worried about Russian retaliation against its "physical presence" in Russia (the article notes that Facebook tries to comply with demands by governments in nations where it has such a presence), then it would do well to withdraw that presence, so as to eliminate that vulnerability.

Navalny is one of the leading domestic opponents of a government that has engaged in extensive repression at home, and committed gross violations of human rights and international law abroad. Particularly at a time when falling oil prices and the collapse of the ruble have potentially made the Putin regime vulnerable, Facebook and other western enterprises should not cooperate with its efforts to repress opposition speech.