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The Kremlin’s digital campaign against Alexey Navalny is cranking up pressure

Russia’s internet censorship agency is leading the charge on silencing Navalny supporters

Digital attacks against Alexey Navalny’s online operations have opened a firehose of pressure against his supporters while the Russian opposition leader enters a third week of hunger strike amid widespread concern that he may be on the brink of death. 

The government’s powerful internet watchdog Roskomnadzor, which has expansive jurisdiction in investigating and punishing nearly any internet user, platform or organization online in Russia, is leading the campaign to quash Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations and network of regional offices around the country. 

Moscow’s chief prosecutor is seeking to designate Navalny’s foundation as an “extremist group” which would effectively shut down the organization in Russia. This looming designation has spread fear among supporters who could potentially be charged with supporting an extremist organization for posting pro-Navalny messages on social media.

A Moscow court will rule on the extremism charge on April 26. Two close associates of Navalny, Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, have told team members they are certain the decision will not go in their favor and to prepare to shut down operations and some social media accounts.

The prosecutor’s investigation comes on the heels of a leak of hundreds of thousands of email addresses that have subscribed to a Navalny office newsletter, spurring fears that the addresses are already in the possession of authorities. The internet regulator is holding Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation responsible for violating laws on personal data security in relation to the leak. Anonymous hackers behind the data breach sent messages to the email addresses that read “this will help you remember the moment when you put your data in the hands of losers.”

Roskomnadzor is taking several preemptive measures to clamp down on the planned April 21 protests in support of Navalny. On YouTube, where Navalny’s channel has well over a billion views, the agency filed a takedown request for a video urging people to join protests. In a message to Navalny’s channel, YouTube wrote that it had received notice from Roskomnadzor that the video violated Russian law and if the video wasn’t removed, “Google may be required to block the content.” Google, YouTube’s parent company, has a history of bowing to Russian pressure but the relationship is complicated. This summer, YouTube blocked a number of pro-government channels as part of its campaign to fight fake news and hate speech, leading the Russian government to threaten to block the site altogether.

There are also cases underway against Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Telegram.

Why it matters: “I’ve already started getting calls from people who are concerned that because they are subscribers on Navalny’s site or have made donations, they could now be called in for financing extremist activity,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, founder of the Moscow-based Digital Rights Center, “The level of fear is high.”

Darbinyan says that the leaked emails essentially handed the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs a working list that can easily be combined with other data leaks to identify people by name. In the past, Russians photographed or identified as attending pro-Navalny demonstrations have faced arrest and have been fired from their jobs.

The big picture: Over the years the government has tried a number of methods to silence Navalny supporters, from mass arrests at protests to even using the military draft to snatch up close allies of Navalny. But in recent weeks, its propaganda tactics across pro-government media channels have shifted and Roskomnadzor, the internet censorship agency, is acting more boldly than ever before. Once an obscure oversight agency, Roskomnadzor has evolved into Russia’s chief cyberspace censor and one of the government’s most powerful tools of control.

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