The Russian government said on Wednesday that it was slowing access to Twitter, accusing the social network of failing to remove illegal content and signalling that the Kremlin is escalating its offensive against American internet companies that have long provided a haven for freedom of expression.
According to The New York Times, Kremlin's move was a landmark step in a country where the internet has essentially remained free despite President Vladimir Putin's "authoritarian rule".
As media regulators tried to slow access to Twitter, dozens of Russian government websites went offline for about an hour, a crash that some experts said most likely stemmed from a technical glitch in the state's move against the social network, NYT further reported.
Russia's telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, said it was reducing the speed at which Twitter loaded for users in Russia, and pictures and videos indeed at times took longer than usual to load. The regulator accused the company of failing for years to remove posts about illegal drug use or child pornography or messages "pushing minors toward suicide."
"With the aim of protecting Russian citizens and forcing the internet service to follow the law on the territory of the Russian Federation, centralized reactive measures have been taken against Twitter starting March 10, 2021 -- specifically, the initial throttling of the service's speeds, in accordance with the regulations," the regulator said in a statement.
"If the internet service Twitter continues to ignore the demands of the law, measures against it will continue in accordance with the regulations, up to and including blocking it," it added.
It was further reported that the action against Twitter was intended as a warning to other American internet companies, Aleksandr Khinshtein, a member of Parliament who helped write a law that allowed the regulator to slow traffic, told reporters on Wednesday.
He said that putting the brakes on Twitter traffic "will force all other social networks and large foreign internet companies to understand Russia won't silently watch and swallow the flagrant ignoring of our laws." The companies would have to obey Russian rules on content or "lose the possibility to make money in Russia," he added.
It was noted that social networks, along with Chinese-owned TikTok, played "a pivotal role" in the anti-Kremlin protests that accompanied the return and imprisonment of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny this year.
Navalny has some 2.5 million Twitter followers, and his investigation published in January into a purported secret palace of Putin was viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube.
Russian officials claim that Silicon Valley companies discriminate against Russians by blocking some pro-Kremlin accounts while "handing a megaphone" to the Putin's critics. They have also said that social networks have refused to remove content drawing children into the unauthorized protests in support of Navalny.
"Online, we bump into child pornography and child prostitution, with the sale and distribution of drugs, with children and teenagers as the target audience," Putin said this month.
The internet must respect "the moral laws of the society in which we live -- otherwise, this society will be destroyed from the inside," the president said.
According to NYT, Twitter has a small user base in Russia, though it is popular among journalists, politicians and opposition activists. A report last year estimated the service had 690,000 active users in Russia.