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Apr 22, 2020
Virtual Protests in Russia “Dispersed” by Government-Controlled Yandex

On Monday, April 20, 2020, numerous virtual protests took place throughout Russia, including several cities with populations of over a million of inhabitants.

The cyber-rallies were fueled by citizens’ dissatisfaction with the measures adopted by the Russian authorities in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Protesters published notes and messages on the map of the Yandex.Navigator app, concentrating on the cities’ main squares and government office buildings. Messages were published through the Yandex.Navigator “Talks” function, which is normally used by drivers to report traffic accidents and other traffic-related issues.

Virtual protest in Rostov-on-Don

The first virtual protest originated in Rostov-on-Don, in response to the announcement by local authorities of a strict pass system for moving within the city amid the coronavirus spread. After Rostov, similar rallies popped up in Moscow where thousands of residents left messages geotagged to the Red Square and around the Kremlin; in St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Ufa, Orenburg, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg, Kazan, Krasnodar and other cities.

Online-protest in Moscow (screenshot from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndoiT9DaM2M)

Angry citizens demanded relief payments and other benefits from the government, called for the government to declare a state of emergency in the country, pleaded for deferrals or forgiveness for utility bills, loans and mortgages. “Where are our taxes? It’s time to return them back!!!”,“There is no work, the money has run out, Putin – how am I supposed to feed my children?/…/”

Demands for a declaration of an emergency regime and disbursement of social payments were some of the most frequent themes. Protesters also called for Putin’s resignation and for the dissolution of the government, expressed dissatisfaction with the inadequate actions taken by the authorities to contain the spread of the epidemic: “Putin has betrayed citizens, left us without money, work or hope”, “Stop stealing!”, “Shame on the government that can only ban and punish.”

One of the last messages posted on the “Talks” platform before Yandex turned off the comments feature was at 11:56 pm and originated in St. Petersburg: “This is horrible! Putin holds Russia in contempt.”

“Talks” comments from the website probkatalks.ru

To estimate the volume of posts on Yandex.Navigator during the virtual protests, we tracked and recorded metrics at 10 pm Moscow time. The average publication rate at that time was approximately 62 messages per second, which amounted to approximately 224,000 messages per hour. We can assume that the number of posts was even higher during peak hours.

Yandex’s reaction to cyber-protests was swift. Some participants began noticing that their messages had been deleted. Yandex blocked the ability to post near the Red Square in Moscow; messages pinged to the Palace Square in St. Petersburg were deleted; and all critical messages were deleted in Yekaterinburg. By midnight, “Talks” messages update had been disabled, with the last message published at 11:56 pm. Yandex justified these actions saying that the protest messages violated the app’s rules, which allow users to only publish traffic-related information.

On April 21, 2020 the following message appeared on probkatalks.ru portal which aggregates posts from “Talks”: “Unfortunately, data collection has been suspended, the feed is no longer being updated.”

In its official press release, Yandex said that “ moving forward the service would automatically limit post attempts for locations not corresponding to the location of their author.”

Yandex is the highest-valued IT company in Russia, and the most-used search engine (with 55% of the market), which also provides additional online services such as news, emails, blogs, music service, etc. In 2019, after a protracted standoff with the Kremlin, Yandex was forced to sell of a “golden share” to the government-controlled Public Interest Foundation along with a veto power over a host of governance functions and business deals.

According to a report by The Project, following the Russian military aggression against Georgia, the President’s Administration designated Yandex as a company of strategic importance. At least one Yandex.News service executive has been provided with direct secure phone line to the office of the President’s Administration. Since then, The Project reports, government officials have established continuous oversight and review of algorithms of news aggregation. The government has advised Yandex on which media outlets to include and which to omit from its scanning. This resulted in the reduction of Yandex approved media sources from 7,000 to 1,000. Due to the pressure from the Kremlin, Yandex discontinued some of its popular services such as Blogosphere Pulse, which analyzed and presented informational trends, and the Rating of Blogs, which featured Navalny and other government’s critics in Top 10. According to The Project’s sources inside the President’s Administration, the Kremlin raised concerns about Yandex.Talks back in 2012-2013, and mandated Yandex to start moderating messages.

Nevertheless, the virtual protest format has gained traction in Russia and has since been adopted by the organizers of the “NO!” campaign against amending the Russian Constitution. The initiators have already scheduled an event on their YouTube channel for April 28 at 6:00 pm Moscow time.

by Dmitry Valuev