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Facebook caves to Russian censorship, blocks page supporting Putin critic

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Event calls for a Moscow protest in support of Alexei Navalny, prominent opposition leader and fierce critic of the Kremlin

Kremlin.ru

Facebook has blocked a page calling for a protest in support of a prominent opposition leader in Russia, apparently at the request of Vladimir Putin's government. The page was created on Friday to organize a Moscow demonstration to support Alexei Navalny, an anti-Putin blogger who has been targeted by the Russian regime since 2011, when he spearheaded widespread anti-government protests. Last week, Russian prosecutors called for Navalny to serve a 10-year jail sentence on nebulous charges of embezzlement, sparking calls for pro-Navalny protests. The Facebook event page, which has 13,000 attendees as of Monday morning, was blocked within Russia on Saturday, though it remains online for users outside the country. The Washington Post reports that similar pages have since sprouted up and remain accessible in Russia.

A spokesman for Roskomnadzor, Russia's communications regulator, told the Interfax news agency Saturday that the government had requested that Facebook block the page because it calls for "unauthorized mass events" and that its request "is being fulfilled." A controversial law passed earlier this year allows Russian regulators to block any sites that call for unauthorized demonstrations or publish "extremist" content. The pro-Navalny demonstration was to be held on January 15th, the day Navalny's verdict will be handed down, in Manezhnaya Square, near the Kremlin. A Facebook spokesperson told the Post that the company is currently investigating the matter. A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on this story.

The crackdown continues

The Russian government has tightened its control over the internet in recent years, mirroring its broader crackdown on domestic television, newspapers, and other media outlets. This week's move comes amid continued economic turmoil in Russia and after Putin's annual marathon press conference on Thursday. During the three-hour press conference, Putin warned that "the border line between the opposition and the fifth column is very thin," evoking a World War II-era term for government traitors.

Facebook isn't as popular within Russia as the social network VK, which last year came under control of pro-Kremlin oligarchs after a hostile takeover. Both Facebook and Twitter have complied with government requests to block certain material in the past, and regularly acknowledge them in transparency reports. During the first six months of this year, Facebook removed 29 pieces of content at the request of the Russian government. A new law going into effect on January 1st requires internet companies to store data on Russian citizens within the country's borders, potentially making it easier for the government to monitor them.