U.S. Social-Media Giants Are Resisting Russia Censors

Sam Schechner and Gregory White for WSJ

Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Google Inc. have started resisting Russian government orders to remove information about a rally next month in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, raising the prospect of a showdown over the Kremlin’s efforts to control online information.

In response to a request from Russian prosecutors, Roskomnadzor, the country’s communications regulator, began issuing block orders for Russia just hours after the Moscow rally was publicized on social media late last week, officials said. Facebook honored the initial order last weekend and blocked a page promoting the event, but others were quickly created, attracting more attention.

Since then, Facebook has left the other pages promoting the rally active in Russia, including one that shows more than 32,000 users indicating they will attend. Facebook lawyers are reviewing a growing number of Russian government removal requests, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Twitter Inc. confirmed that it has received multiple directives since last week from Russian authorities to remove tweets and accounts that promote the rally, citing a prosecutorial order under Russian federal law. But a Twitter spokesman said the company has “not removed the content they specified,” and has been forwarding the government orders to users to warn them.

Google Inc.’s YouTube still has videos promoting the rally available on its Russian site, despite the government’s directives.

A spokesman for Roskomnadzor said the prosecutors’ order to block rally content “will be fulfilled,” but declined to offer details on how. “We’re talking to everybody differently,” he said. The blocks don’t usually affect users outside Russia.

Currently under house arrest, Mr. Navalny is a lawyer and anticorruption activist who is now one of the most prominent figures in Russia’s beleaguered opposition. He has been charged with fraud in a case that he and his supporters say is an effort to pressure him for his political activity. Prosecutors are seeking a 10-year sentence and deny any political motivation.

The prominence of the Navalny case has put a spotlight on these U.S. tech giants in Russia at a time of growing East-West tensions. Their resisting of legal orders signals a potential worsening of relations with the Kremlin, which has often accused U.S. Internet companies of being used as tools to undermine governments deemed unfriendly by WashingtonRussian officials deny the Internet curbs are aimed at silencing critics.

Until now, companies have often complied with Russia’s legal orders to remove content, rather than risk a government blackout. But the firms have become more wary as the government has given itself new powers to regulate the Internet. And the very public nature of this episode leaves the U.S. tech companies facing a dilemma.

On one hand, cooperation with governments like Russia’s risks damaging their reputation among users, and goes against the libertarian values of Silicon Valley. But U.S. Internet firms need to expand in large markets to meet the growth expectations that have raised their valuations to stratospheric levels.

Similar tensions played out this year in Turkey, where the government demanded the removal of content on Twitter and YouTube that alleged government corruption. Twitter and YouTube resisted some of the requests, leading the government to temporarily block them across the country.

“These companies don’t want to block anything. But on the other hand, they need to protect their employees and protect their advertiser base. Both of those things come under threat if they stand up against the government,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Roskomnadzor said the block orders came under a new law passed early this year that allows prosecutors to order sites blocked without getting court orders if they are suspected of extremism or include calls to join public demonstrations that haven’t been sanctioned by the authorities. That law has been used to block a number of opposition news and information sites this year, but the latest orders seem to be the first involving planned protests.

The protest is timed to coincide with the scheduled verdict in the fraud case against Mr. Navalny. Investigators opened another criminal fraud case involving the wife of a Navalny ally who is also facing criminal charges.

Facebook’s initial block sparked a wave of criticism. Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, wrote on Twitter on Dec. 20, “We all make mistakes. @facebook should correct theirs in Russia asap. Current action—horrible precedent & bad for business.”

Facebook declined to comment on the criticism, but the tweet drew a response from Russian parliamentarian Mikhail Degtyaryov, who told the RIA-Novosti state news agency, “McFaul should be quiet and Facebook should obey Russian laws. We know what happens to countries that don’t limit extremist activity online—that’s the ‘Arab Spring’…Russia doesn’t need that.”

The blocking nevertheless generated publicity for the rally, emboldening Navalny allies.

“The Prosecutor General, Roskomnadzor and Facebook with their actions clearly helped us,” wrote one ally, Leonid Volkov, in a blog post last weekend. About 12,000 people had signed up in Facebook on the first page flagging the rally before it was blocked, while more than 15,000 signed up on the replacement page in the first day, Mr. Volkov wrote.

Russia’s Internet crackdown dates in part to 2011, when mass protests against then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin erupted on the streets of Moscow. Authorities equipped themselves with a legal arsenal initially aimed at blocking content about drugs and suicide, but the list of topics has since expanded steadily to include “extremist” content and other categories.

Russia also passed a law that requires Russian bloggers to register with authorities if they have more than 3,000 daily visitors. In a meeting in Moscow this month, Twitter told authorities that authorities that it can’t turn over data on users to see if they meet that threshold because it doesn’t collect data in that format, according to people familiar with the meeting.

In recent months, the company also added a “verified” logo to Mr. Navalny’s Twitter account—which has 858,000 followers—to indicate the company confirms its authenticity.

Russia’s most popular social network, VKontakte, has also made a decision to refrain from further blocking information about the rally in support of Mr. Navalny, a person close to the company said. The person said that following block orders from Roskomnadzor would create an unfair competitive advantage for foreign social networks and turn people away from VKontakte.

Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin activists are planning a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on Sunday, alleging that Twitter has unfairly blocked their accounts after complaints from users in Ukraine citing their anti-Kiev posts. City authorities have granted a permit for that protest.

“We suspend accounts that violate our rules, which prohibit direct, specific threats of violence against others,” the Twitter spokesman said.

Olga Razumovskaya contributed to this article.