Tinder and the Russian Intelligence Services: It’s a Match!
Will Facebook and Twitter be next?
The announcement this week that Russian authorities had asked the dating app Tinder to hand over photos and messages exchanged by Russian users is just the latest step in a sweeping clampdown on free speech in the country by President Vladimir Putin—one that has taken a turn for the absurd lately.
Last year, authorities cancelled the shows of dozens of Russian rappers and hip-hop artists to supposedly protect youths from immoral content. In April, a man was fined $470 after calling Putin “an unbelievable fuckwit,” in violation of a new law against insulting the authorities. And last week the Kostroma regional office of Roskomnadzor—a government body that oversees the media and internet—coached local journalists on how to cover sensitive topics such as drugs, suicide, and insults to the authorities, according to the news site Mediazona. Since detailed reporting on suicide methods is banned in Russia, journalists were handed a cheat sheet on how to stay on the right side of the law. If a man throws himself in front of a train, the journalists were told to report that the man was “accidentally hit by a train.”
Tinder isn’t the first Western tech company to face scrutiny from Roskomnadzor, which has taken on an increasingly powerful censorship role in recent years. In 2016, the networking site LinkedIn was blocked in Russia for refusing to store the data of Russian users in the country. In a statement issued at the time and reported by TechCrunch, LinkedIn it believed it had complied with all applicable Russian laws, but the company had been unable to reach an understanding with Roskomnadzor to have the ban lifted.
In April, Twitter was hit with a $46 fine for refusing to reveal to authorities where it stored Russian user data.
Still, the idea of Russian intelligence officers wading through Tinder messages of Russian users seemed to be particularly remarkable. The site is not exactly a venue for the exchange of political opinions—much less ideas that would undermine the regime.
One of Putin’s first acts when he came to power in 2000 was to muzzle the independent TV and print media. But the internet remained largely untouched for years, and a vibrant online culture flourished.
When Putin returned to the presidency in 2012—after swapping out for a term with now-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev—he was greeted by the largest street protests Russia had seen in decades. Having brought the traditional media to heel during Putin’s first two terms in office, the Russian parliament passed a spate of vaguely worded laws that range from bizarre to draconian.
These laws fell into two broad categories, said Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
“It’s control for the purported purpose of preventing extremism, and then the other purpose is to enforce conformity, cultural norms, and traditional values under the guise sometimes of protecting children and the family, protecting morality,” she said.
A nationwide ban on so-called gay propaganda (any discussion of LGBTQ issues around minors) came into force; reporting on suicide became heavily censored; and nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity were branded as foreign agents. Under a 2013 law, people deemed to have offended the feelings of religious people can be sent to prison.
Earlier this year Putin signed into law two new bills that impose fines for spreading fake news or showing blatant disrespect for the authorities.
“How many vague ways of prosecuting people for saying things you don’t like do you need?” said Tanya Lokot, an assistant professor at Dublin City University who studies internet freedom and governance in Russia.
Experts are doubtful that the Russian authorities have the capacity or the intention to fully enforce these laws across the country. But they do create a chilling effect. The laws are vague enough that authorities can use them to pursue almost anyone for things said on or offline.
“It’s much easier when you keep people on their toes and they don’t know what to expect from you, it’s much easier to try and control them,” Lokot said.
While China’s vast system of censorship has kept pace with the development of the internet, the Russians have been playing catch-up.
“They’re finally starting to understand what the internet is and how it works—that it’s not just content and streams of information, but it’s also infrastructure. And that in order to control the Russian web, you also need to control the infrastructure,” Lokot said.
Russia’s laws have taken a more technical turn in recent years as the regime seeks greater control over networks and data. Legislation passed in 2017 banned virtual private networks, which can hide browsing activity, and anonymous messaging services. Russia’s own internet ombudsman, who was appointed by Putin, called the law “madness.”
As part of the new policy on Tinder, the Roskomnadzor office announced it was adding the app to the register of “information-dissemination operators”—which includes messaging services. Sites or apps that appear on the list must store message exchanges by users on servers in Russia for at least six months. They must also turn over the information to security services upon request.
On Thursday, the Russian news agency TASS quoted Alexander Zharov, who runs Roskomnadzor, as saying that Tinder had indicated it was willing to provide data to Russian security agencies.
Tinder did not respond to a request for comment from Foreign Policy.
Nate Schenkkan, the director of special research at Freedom House, said Western companies should be cautious about engaging with Russian authorities on these issues. “Any request needs to be examined for the likelihood of its use in political persecution or other abuses,” he said.
Russia’s laws raise thorny issues for Western tech companies as they face increased scrutiny at home about the protection of user data.
In December 2018, Apple—which in the United States has positioned itself as a champion of user privacy—indicated it would comply with laws to store Russian user data on servers in the country, potentially giving the security services access to the private data of thousands of Russian Apple customers.
When LinkedIn was banned in 2016 it was widely interpreted as a warning to bigger companies about the risks of not adhering to the law.
It remains to be seen how this will play out with tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter, which remain tight-lipped about their plans. Moscow certainly wants these companies to comply with Russian laws but would face challenges trying to ban them.
Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the risk analysis firm R.Politik, said that when it comes to taking on the tech titans, the Kremlin had become hostage to its own policy.
“The Kremlin doesn’t want to ban Facebook. I think there is an understanding that a new generation of Russians has grown up and they live on the internet,” she said. “If they were to block it online it could lead to a revolution.”