Facebook has blocked access to a page rallying support for Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny but says it will not be blocking access to any further similar pages. Anonymous sources at Facebook and Twitter say they are aware of the danger that their services are at risk of being subjected to a complete ban in Russia.

Russian opposition activist and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, right, waits for a start of a trial in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. Navalny, who has been under house arrest since February, is being charged in a second trial that may put him behind bars for good. Photo: AP

Facebook and Twitter have decided not to block access to pages set up by Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny’s supporters, Russian TV channel Dozhd has reported, citing several unnamed sources.

Facebook complied with a request by the Russian authorities to block access to a page organizing support for Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny but says it will not block access to any further similar pages. According to Dozhd TV, both social networks are prepared to be taken down in Russia altogether.

Navalny supporters’ page taken down

A Facebook page to plan a street rally in support of Navalny was set up on Friday, Dec. 19 after prosecutors asked for a 10-year prison term for Alexei Navalny (taking into account his current suspended sentence of one year) and an eight-year term for his brother Oleg. The Navalny brothers are standing trial in the so-called Yves Rocher case, an investigation into alleged embezzlement viewed by some as based on fabricated charges. The TJournal website reported that the page had promptly gathered some 12,000 subscribers.

However, by Saturday, Dec. 20, access to the page had already been blocked in Russia following a demand from the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office under a law that makes it possible to take down internet pages without a court ruling, Vadim Ampelonsky, the press secretary of the mass media watchdog Roskomnadzor, told Dozhd TV.

Later, a large community called Rally for Navalny on Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte was also taken down. Roskomnadzor continues to block access to VKontakte pages in Navalny’s support, says Nikolai Durov, the network’s former technical director and brother of its founder Pavel Durov.

According to him, the watchdog has so far demanded that over 50 similar pages be blocked. At the same time, the register of banned resources on the Roskomnadzor website does not list links to those pages. Nikolai Durov said the VKontakte management would respond to Roskomnadzor’s demands today, after a meeting with shareholders.

Facebook’s decision to take down the Navalny support page has come under criticism from the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and several influential American publications, including the Washington Post.

Facebook and Twitter gearing up for complete blackout

According to Dozhd TV’s sources, further pages in support of Navalny will not be taken down. One of those sources is a cofounder of the original blocked page and head of Navalny’s campaign headquarters in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, Leonid Volkov, who is currently living in Luxembourg.

One of the new Facebook pages is indeed still available and has already 24,000 members. 

Another source told Dozhd TV that Twitter had also decided not to block access to accounts containing information on a rally in Navalny’s support. Twitter will inform those account holders of Roskomnadzor demands to remove that information but will not be taking any action itself. One of Navalny’s supporters, Georgy Alburov, has already received this notification. Twitter is also ready to be subjected to a complete ban in Russia, the source told Dozhd TV.

There have so far been no official statements from either Facebook or Twitter on the matter.

There are always loopholes

Boris Dolgov, an expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, says that there are always ways to overcome any restrictions. “The authorities resort to blocking access when they want to prevent events that may destabilize the situation. The Russian authorities are not being original here as moves to block access to social network groups have been taken in the UK, in Hong Kong, and in Spain,” Dolgov told Vedomosti.

Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov, also cited by Vedomosti, said that for the authorities there are two possible courses of action. The first is not to prevent political rallies from taking place, as a political protest is not as dangerous as a social one. The second is to show strength, since any backing down by the authorities will be perceived as weakness. “The final choice between the two will be made at the very last moment,” said Vinogradov.

Background: the Yves Rocher case

Moscow’s Zamoskvoretsky court is due to hand down its verdict to the Navalny brothers in the Yves Rocher case on Jan. 15. According to the investigation, between 2008 and 2013, Alexei and Oleg Navalny embezzled over 26.4 million rubles ($470,000 at the current exchange rate) from Yves Rocher Vostok as well as 4.4 million rubles ($77,500 at the current exchange rate) from Multifunctional Processing Company. The prosecution has asked for nine years in prison for Alexei Navalny (10, taking into account his remaining one-year suspended sentence), and eight years in prison for his brother Oleg.

Alexei Navalny’s supporters have attacked Yves Rocher’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, leaving comments and replies under practically every post there.

The article is first published in Russia Beyond The Headlines.