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Tech Giants Under Pressure Over Russian Opposition Leader's Posts

Feb 14, 2018

YouTube and Instagram are being asked to take down videos and photos at the center of a controversy involving a prominent Russian billionaire and a senior Russian government official.

This follows a high-profile investigation into the men's relationship by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

On Saturday, the Russian federal communications oversight agency Roskomnadzor "ordered YouTube to remove seven videos and ordered Instagram to take down 14 posts, all cited in the investigation," according to The New York Times. "The companies were given three business days to block access to the content, or face investigation."

That time has almost run out. Three days will have elapsed Wednesday evening, Russian local time, according to Navalny.

Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation routinely publish investigations targeting corruption in companies and government in Russia.

His latest offering is centered on Instagram posts and a book written by a woman who goes by Nastya Rybka, who talks about how she seeks to work as an escort for oligarchs. According to Navalny's video, Rybka's posts and book show that metals magnate Oleg Deripaska treated Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko to a lavish weekend aboard his yacht in the days leading up to the 2016 U.S. election.

Navalny makes these claims about the August 2016 boat trip by triangulating Rybka's social media posts and book with geolocation and publicly available maritime and aviation records.

Deripaska has an "unusually public persona" for a Russian businessman, as NPR's Brian Naylor has reported. He's a Putin ally and also once had close ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, though one of Deripaska's companies recently filed a lawsuit against Manafort over a business deal.

A member of Navalny's team posted a screenshot of a message the team allegedly received from YouTube and Google, demanding that he take down one of the videos where he discusses the allegedly corrupt dealings.

The message, purportedly from YouTube's legal team, says that it received a claim from Roskomnadzor that the video violates a Russian law and has been blacklisted. "If you do not remove the content, Google may be required to block it," the message states.

YouTube and Instagram did not immediately respond to NPR's requests for comment. Navalny is asking that they do not accede to the government's demands.

Roskomnadzor blacklisted the posts after Deripaska filed a lawsuit, prompting a court injunction demanding their removal, according to The Moscow Times.

The New York Times notes:

"The tactic may signal a more aggressive approach by the Russian government in its bid to rein in social media and video-sharing websites popular in the country. Since not all internet service providers in Russia are able to cut access to individual web pages, they may be forced to block YouTube and Instagram if the companies fail to comply with the Roskomnadzor order."

Navalny has suggested that he is being targeted due to his calls to boycott the 2018 presidential election, which he calls rigged for Putin. He wasn't allowed to run.

"I'm definitely not alone, and I'm not some kind of dissident," he said in a recent interview with NPR's Lucian Kim. "If you take any of my anti-corruption investigations or any points from my political platform, I'm sure the majority of Russian citizens would support me — and that's why I wasn't allowed to run."

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