Facebook Page for Russia Rally Blocked as Putin Cracks Down

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Opposition Leader Alexey Navalny
Opposition Leader Alexey Navalny, who says the trial is staged, has used social networks to invite his supporters to a “popular gathering” on Jan. 15. Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./Bloomberg

The blocking of a Facebook Inc. page promoting a Russian opposition rally highlights the challenges the social network faces as President Vladimir Putin cracks down on the Internet amid a looming economic downturn.

Facebook agreed to block the page at the request of communications regulator Roskomnadzor, Vadim Ampelonskiy, a spokesman for the Russian agency, said today. The watchdog is seeking to prevent access to further Facebook pages that call for mass protests, as well as similar posts on other social networks, including VKontakte and Twitter, he said. A Facebook representative declined to comment.

The site promoted a Jan. 15 rally backing opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who is facing a prison term of as long as 10 years. The moves come as Russia, on the brink of its first recession since 2009, has been tightening controls amid an international standoff over the Ukraine conflict.

“Navalny is dangerous for Putin as he’s a popular figure, and now that the economy is in crisis, people who felt quite secure a few months ago today are desperate,” Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said by phone.

Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption activist who in 2011 and 2012 helped lead the biggest street protests of Putin’s 15-year-rule, has been under house arrest since February and is barred from using the Internet or phone.

Russian Demands

Putin signed laws this year that tighten his grip over information flows on the Internet, extending the government’s influence beyond more traditional media such as television and newspapers.

Facebook is trying to balance its push for more users in Russia with regulatory demands. The Menlo Park, California-based company had 10.5 million users in Russia as of July, trailing Moscow-based Mail.ru Group Ltd.’s social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, which had 59 million and 53 million users respectively, according to ComScore Inc.

Russian activists criticized Facebook for its decision to comply with the Russian demand at the weekend.

“We were very surprised at the speed with which Facebook blocked the page at the request of Roskomnadzor without even consulting with the organizers of the event,” Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said by phone today.

‘No Guts’

Pavel Durov, the founder of VKontakte, a Russian counterpart to Facebook, said the U.S. social network has “no guts or principles” in a Twitter posting. He left Russia this year after ceding control of the company.

Russian law gives the authorities powers to seek to block access to web pages calling for mass protest and extremism without a court decision, Roskomnadzor’s Ampelonskiy said.

VKontakte has been receiving such requests, its spokesman Georgy Lobushkin said by phone from St. Petersburg, declining to elaborate. Twitter Inc. didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Although Facebook initially complied with the Russian demand, it, along with Twitter, is now refusing to implement such requests, said Web pioneer Anton Nossik, who founded popular Russian news sites.

“They’ve brought things to a standoff,” he said by phone. “Either the Russian government proceeds or climbs down. The only option left is to shut down Facebook and Twitter entirely in Russia.”

Navalny, a 38-year-old anti-corruption lawyer turned politician, and his brother are scheduled to get a court verdict on Jan. 15 for alleged fraud. Navalny, who says the trial is staged, has used social networks to invite his supporters to a “popular gathering” on that day.

If Navalny, who was handed a suspended sentence in another embezzlement case last year, is sent to prison, this will provoke “serious protests,” said Makarkin, the political analyst. “Navalny appeals not only to the urban middle-class but to a wider section of society.”

Navalny, who finished second with 27 percent in Moscow mayoral elections in September 2013 and almost forced a run-off against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin, said in an interview in October that he’s confident he can bring about the downfall of Putin’s “authoritarian” regime.

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