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Russia court bans Facebook, Instagram on 'extremism' charges amid increasing tensions with West

Prosecutors have accused the social media platforms of ignoring government requests to remove what they described as fake news about the Russian military action in Ukraine.

Published: 22nd March 2022 10:17 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd March 2022 10:17 AM   |  A+A-

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For representational purposes (Photo | AFP)

By PTI

MOSCOW: A Moscow court banned Facebook and Instagram on Monday for what it deemed extremist activity in a case against their parent company, Meta.

The Tverskoy District Court fulfilled a request from prosecutors to outlaw Meta Platforms Inc. and banned Facebook and Instagram for what they called "extremist activities."

Prosecutors have accused the social media platforms of ignoring government requests to remove what they described as fake news about the Russian military action in Ukraine and calls for protests in Russia.

The court's ruling bans Meta from opening offices and doing business in Russia.

Meta declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.

Prosecutors haven't requested to ban the Meta-owned messaging service WhatsApp, which is widely popular in Russia.

The authorities also emphasized that they do not intend to punish individual Russians who use Facebook or Instagram.

Instagram and Facebook were already blocked in Russia after the communications and media regulator Roskomnadzor said they were being used to call for violence against Russian soldiers.

In addition to blocking Facebook and Instagram, Russian authorities also have shut access to foreign media websites.

The court's verdict comes amid multipronged efforts by Russian authorities to control the message amid the military action in Ukraine, which the Kremlin describes as a "special military operation" intended to uproot alleged "neo-Nazi nationalists."

A new law fast-tracked on March 4 by the Kremlin-controlled parliament, a week after Russia launched the attack on Ukraine, envisions prison terms of up to 15 years for posting "fake" information about the military that differs from the official narrative.

Russia has warned that relations with the US are "on the verge of a breach" and summoned the US ambassador for an official protest against President Joe Biden's criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement Monday referred to "recent unacceptable statements" by Biden about Putin.

Biden referred to Putin last week as a "war criminal" in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry says that at the meeting with US ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan "it was emphasized that remarks such as these by the American President, which are unworthy of a state figure of such a high rank, put Russian-American relations on the verge of a breach."

President Joe Biden is urging U.S. companies to make sure their digital doors are locked tight because of "evolving intelligence" that Russia is considering launching cyberattacks against critical infrastructure targets as the war in Ukraine continues.

Biden's top cybersecurity aide, Anne Neuberger, expressed frustration at a White House press briefing Monday that some critical infrastructure entities have ignored alerts from federal agencies to fix known problems in software that could be exploited by Russian hackers.

"Notwithstanding these repeated warnings, we continue to see adversaries compromising systems that use known vulnerabilities for which there are patches," said Neuberger, who is the president's deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies.

"That makes it far easier for attackers than it needs to be."

The federal government has been providing warnings to U.S. companies of the threats posed by Russian state hackers since long before the country invaded Ukraine last month.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has launched a "Shields Up" campaign aimed at helping companies strengthen their defences and has urged companies to back up their data, turn on multifactor authentication and take other steps to improve cyber hygiene.

Neuberger said there's no intelligence suggesting a specific Russian cyberattack against U.S. targets, but she did add that there has been increase in "preparatory activity," like scanning websites and hunting for vulnerabilities, that is common among nation-state hackers.

In a statement, Biden said Russia could launch an cyberattack against U.S. targets as retaliation for "the unprecedented economic costs we've imposed" on Russia through sanctions.

"It's part of Russia's playbook," Biden said.

The United States and its allies have put a slew of sanctions in place aimed at crippling the Russian economy, and Biden recently announced the U.S. is sending more anti-aircraft, anti-armor weapons and drones to help Ukraine.

John Hultquist, a vice president of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, said cyberattacks gives Russia the ability to punch back.

"Cyberattacks are a means for them to exact costs without crossing a major red line," he said.

Russia is considered a hacking powerhouse but its offensive cyberattacks since it invaded Ukraine have been muted compared to what some feared.

Russia has carried out significant cyberattacks against Ukraine in years past, including the devastating NotPetya attack in 2017 that spread far and wide and caused more than $10 billion in damage globally.

Neuberger said Russia cyberattacks against Ukraine are ongoing, though did not provide specifics.

She said the Biden administration has made clear there will be consequences if Russia engages with the U.S. in cyberspace.

"We're not looking for a conflict with Russia. If Russia initiates a cyberattack against the United States, we will respond," she said.

The Russian embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki says he is encouraging Switzerland to take bolder steps in cutting off Russian oligarchs who support Russian leaders from the billions of US dollars they have in Swiss banks or in business there.

Morawiecki spoke Monday at a joint news conference with visiting Swiss President Ignazio Cassis.

They held talks about the situation in Ukraine, which was invaded by Russian troops February 24.

Morawiecki noted that Russia's richest businessmen have deposited billions of US dollars in Swiss banks, were doing business there and had other assets.

He said the assets could be used to help Ukraine rebuild from the war's destruction.

Cassis noted that Switzerland has joined the European Union's sanctions on Russia and has also has frozen the bank accounts and business of Russian oligarchs who are on the EU sanctions lists and also of some others.

Poland's government is working on amendments to the constitution that would allow for the seizure of Russia's assets in Poland.

Russia's central bank has cautiously reopened bond trading on the Moscow exchange for the first time since the country invaded Ukraine.

The price of Russia's ruble-denominated government debt fell on Monday, sending borrowing costs higher.

Stock trading has remained closed, with no word on when it might reopen.

The central bank bought bonds to support prices.

It has imposed wide-ranging restrictions on financial transactions to try to stabilise markets and combat the severe fallout from Western sanctions that have sent the ruble sharply lower against the US dollar and the euro.

Ratings agencies have downgraded Russia's bonds to "junk" status.

The country's finance ministry last week flirted with default by threatening to pay foreign holders of dollar bonds in massively devalued rubles before sending the money in dollars.

Stocks last traded on February 2

The UK government on Monday accused Russia of deploying distraction tactics and outright lies as part of a disinformation campaign around the Ukraine conflict, including making hoax calls to British ministers.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had referenced receiving such fake calls over social media last week.

Downing Street has confirmed that they were targeted alongside Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to hide the scale of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.

"The Russian state was responsible for the hoax telephone calls made to UK ministers last week," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson at 10 Downing Street told reporters.

"This is standard practice for Russian information operations. Disinformation is a tactic straight from the Kremlin playbook to try to distract from their illegal activities in Ukraine and the human rights abuses being committed there."

"We are seeing a string of distraction stories and outright lies from the Kremlin, reflecting Putin's desperation as he seeks to hide the scale of the conflict and Russia's failings on the battlefield," the spokesperson said.

Downing Street has said that the calls should never have happened and a cross-department inquiry has been launched into the circumstances surrounding the calls.

Last week, Wallace took to Twitter to reveal that an attempt was made by "an imposter" claiming to be Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal to speak with him.

"He posed several misleading questions and after becoming suspicious, I terminated the call. No amount of Russian disinformation, distortion and dirty tricks can distract from Russia's human rights abuses and illegal invasion of Ukraine. A desperate attempt," he tweeted on Thursday.

In response, Patel said on Twitter: "This also happened to me earlier this week. Pathetic attempt at such difficult times to divide us. We stand with Ukraine."

The UK government has stressed that it remains vigilant against such actions attributed to the Kremlin.



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