Needed: more reliable ways to organize online.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

End of the Facebook Revolution

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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U.S.-based social networks have been credited with helping protesters in many countries topple oppressive regimes, or at least try. These "Facebook Revolutions" and  "Twitter Revolutions" mostly took place three or four years ago, however -- in tech time, they're ancient history. Governments have learned a lot from the Arab Spring and other such protests, and social networks have turned into mature companies that must, by definition, maintain good relations with the authorities. 

Facebook proved it Saturday by blocking an announcement inviting Muscovites to attend a January rally in support of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who is about to be sentenced to a long prison term on trumped-up charges. 

Ever since Navalny emerged as the most credible leader of Moscow's failed "Snow Revolution" of 2011 and 2012, he has been hounded by Russia's law enforcement agencies. He is already serving a suspended sentence for allegedly stealing lumber from a state enterprise -- an invented crime from which Navalny, even his prosecutors acknowledge, did not personally profit. Now, he and his brother, who works for the Russian postal service, are being accused of setting up a logistics company that allegedly overcharged the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher for its services. The French firm has denied incurring any losses from the Navalnys' activities, but the trial went ahead, and on Friday, the prosecutor asked for a 10-year sentence for Alexei Navalny.

The activist's concluding remarks at the trial were powerful: "I will never agree with the system that has been built in this country, because this system's goal is to rob everyone in this audience today," Navalny said.

Last year, when he was sentenced in the lumber case, between 5,000 and 10,000 Muscovites assembled opposite Red Square to demand his release. Perhaps this worked, as Navalny later claimed, or perhaps there was a glitch in Russia's byzantine legal system, but the activist was immediately freed on parole. This time, Navalny's supporters are taking no chances and trying to organize a rally for Jan. 15, when the sentence is due to be announced. Leonid Volkov, who last year managed Navalny's unexpectedly effective campaign to become mayor of Moscow -- he came in second -- set up a Facebook event to advertise the gathering. About 12,500 people indicated they would attend before Facebook blocked the announcement for Russia-based accounts and, as users later reported, even for some people based overseas if they listed a Russian city as their birthplace.

Facebook never directly admitted that it blocked the page. Roskomnadzor, Russia's official web censorship body, did, however, report that the event page was being blocked on orders from the prosecutor general's office, which said the proposed rally had not been granted a city permit. Pages announcing the rally on the Russian social network VKontakte and on the LiveJournal blog platform were also removed from view.

The move was a godsend to Volkov and other Navalny sympathizers. The rally became a kind of international cause celebre after Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, tweeted about the blockage:

The Washington Post did a quick story about it, containing the first comment from Facebook: It was "investigating the matter." Today, a Facebook spokesperson told me there would be no on-the-record comment on the blockage. No matter how the investigation ended, the original event remained invisible in Russia, but others set up afterward were accessible. 

I'm pretty sure the Russian authorities asked Facebook to make those other event announcements disappear, too -- they have the resources to track all the links -- but the U.S. company is no longer complying. Since Facebook is not commenting, I'll take it upon myself to suggest three possible reasons for the change.

First, Twitter refused to block tweets announcing the Jan. 15 rally. It merely forwarded the authorities' complaints to the posters. It would not do for Facebook to appear more pliable than its competitor. Second, both Twitter and Facebook have audiences of a little more than 10 million in Russia, a tiny share of their worldwide user base, and their revenues from the Russian market hardly even register on the corporate ledgers. So the networks can afford to be principled: The resulting publicity will boost their image in countries where they make more money.

Finally, Facebook is a U.S. company and, given the frosty relations between Washington and Moscow these days, its management doesn't need ex-diplomats and political reporters accusing it of getting into bed with the Kremlin for filthy lucre.

None of these three considerations would even have come up if Facebook hadn't blocked the original event announcement. Now they are suddenly relevant, and they  bode poorly for protesters everywhere, not just in Russia. What if Facebook is doing significant business in a country, its authorities have not fallen foul of Washington, and Twitter is, for reasons of its own, complying with requests for the removal of certain content? Then will it be possible to organize a protest using the platform?

Opposition activists everywhere must now assume that they need more reliable ways to organize online. One of these is the mesh networking app FireChat, which was developed, ironically, by a Russian software engineer. Navalny's supporters are already sharing information on how to use it during the January rally.

As for the U.S.-based Internet companies, after Edward Snowden's reports of their cooperation with U.S. intelligence, they are already widely mistrusted. My colleague Katie Benner recently described some of their efforts to fight back: Ultimately, users' distrust can be a drag on the bottom line and the market cap. I cannot bring myself to put much stock in these efforts, however, when Facebook shows that it's sometimes willing to cooperate with the Russian authorities in cases involving the suppression of political opposition. Imagine what it would do -- or, for all we know, has already done -- for the U.S. government.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net