Russian opens case against Yandex over alleged competition law breach

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) on Tuesday said it had initiated proceedings against internet giant Yandex over alleged competition law violations on the company’s search engine.

The state agency told Yandex in February it had created unequal market conditions for general online search services, that it was preferentially promoting its own products and asked it to stop. Yandex asked for extra time to respond to the accusations earlier this month.

The FAS said it would investigate possible anti-competitive practices and assess their consequences, adding that Yandex could be subject to a fine should evidence it was restricting competition be found.

“We do not agree with the accusation of restricting competition and are ready to defend our position,” Yandex said in a statement.

Yandex said it was using the global practice of enriched search results to enhance the user experience.

“Over 30,000 companies already use our enriched search technology for free,” Yandex added.

Reporting by Alexander Marrow; editing by Barbara Lewis

Russia extends moves to slow down Twitter’s traffic until May 15

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s state communications regulator said on Monday it would extend its move to slow down Twitter until May 15, but that the U.S. social media company was deleting content banned in Russia at a faster rate than it had been.

Russia said on March 10 that it was slowing down the speed of Twitter in retaliation for what it described as a failure to remove banned content, threatening to block the U.S. platform outright if it did not comply with its deletion demands.

Russian court fines Twitter over failure to delete content

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Friday fined Twitter 3.2 million roubles ($42,011.29) over its failure to delete what the authorities said was banned content.

Moscow said last month it had slowed the speed of U.S.-based Twitter inside Russia and on March 16 threatened to ban the social media service outright in a month over content ranging from child pornography to drug abuse.

There was no immediate comment from Twitter. It said earlier that it was worried about the impact on free speech of the Russian action, and denied that it allowed its platform to be used to promote illegal behaviour as alleged by Russian authorities.

($1 = 76.1750 roubles)

Russian law requires pre-installed domestic software on smart devices

(Reuters) – Smartphones, computers and other smart devices purchased in Russia must come pre-installed with Russian software after legislation came into force on Thursday, in a move that seeks to help Russian IT firms compete with foreign counterparts.

Moscow is trying to strengthen control of the internet and reduce its dependence on foreign companies and countries. A number of additional proposals are in the works, ranging from compelling foreign firms to open offices on Russian territory, to tax breaks for Russian IT companies.

One potential stumbling block for the law’s introduction was the reaction of U.S. tech giant Apple, which dragged its feet before agreeing last month to offer a way for users to install Russian software during iPhone setups.

The legislation has become known colloquially in Russia as ‘the law against Apple.’

Apple said it would offer a selection of apps from Russian developers as part of activation screens for new devices. It said it intended to comply with the new Russian law, but noted that all apps are reviewed to ensure they comply with Apple’s standards for privacy, security and content.

Russia’s digital ministry has said the law applies to smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, laptops and PCs produced after April 1.

“Russian apps from the pre-installation list should be placed next to other programmes of the same class: both from the same category next to each other on the same screen of the device.”

The apps on the list include internet browsers, search engines, maps and navigations providers, and apps for using the payment system Mir, Russia’s answer to Visa and Mastercard, according to a government decree published in November.

Russia’s IT industry has the opportunity and potential to become a “locomotive in the process of modernising the country,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko said at a meeting with representatives of the IT industry last month.

A second package of more than 60 support measures for the industry is being discussed in government, he added.

Russia’s cellphone market is dominated by foreign companies like Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

Russian IT giants Yandex, which dominates in search, and Mail.Ru look best poised to benefit.

Russian pleads guilty to Tesla ransomware plot

A Russian man in the US has pleaded guilty to plotting to extort money from the electric car company Tesla.

Egor Igorevich Kriuchkov is accused of offering an employee $1m (£721,000) to place ransomware in the computer network of the company’s battery plant in Nevada.

He planned to use the ransomware to steal company secrets for extortion, prosecutors alleged.

The 27-year-old pleaded guilty on Thursday in Reno, Nevada.

Mr Kriuchkov acted on behalf of criminals abroad and tried to bribe a Tesla employee in person, prosecutors said.

Ransomware attacks companies or organisations by scrambling their internal computer networks, stealing information or locking users out. The attackers then demand large sums of money in return for ending the hack.

The FBI said the planned attack on Tesla was stopped before it could take place.

Mr Kriuchkov told a court in September that the Russian government was aware of the planned hack, but the FBI and lawyers have not alleged that there were ties to the Kremlin. 

“The swift response of the company and the FBI prevented a major exfiltration of the victim company’s data and stopped the extortion scheme at its inception,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicholas McQuaid said in a statement. 

Mr Kruichokov was in the US for five weeks on a tourist visa in July and August last year when he tried to recruit the Tesla employee, according to court documents reported in US media.

He was quoted as saying that he and his co-conspirators would steal the data, and if Tesla refused to pay the ransom the company’s secrets would be placed on the internet.

The US Department of Justice said that he took the employee out for drinks multiple times and gave him a phone. After the employee told Tesla about the plan, the company contacted the FBI who instructed the employee to record their conversations with Mr Kruichokov.

Mr Kruichokov faces up to ten months in prison after signing a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty, according to technology website The Record.

Russia slows Twitter’s speed over failure to remove banned content

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s state communications watchdog said on Wednesday it was restricting the use of Twitter by slowing down its speed, accusing the social media platform of repeatedly failing to remove banned content from its site.

Roskomnadzor threatened to block the service completely and said there were more than 3,000 posts containing illegal content on it as of Wednesday.

Twitter, like other U.S. social media, is used widely inside Russia by allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny whose jailing last month prompted nationwide protests.

“The slowing down will be applied on a 100% of mobile devices and on 50% of non-mobile devices,” the regulator said in a statement on its website.

“If (Twitter) continues to ignore the requirements of the law, the enforcement measures will be continued in line with the response regulations (all the way to blocking),” it said.

Twitter did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Wednesday’s move comes amid mounting efforts by Moscow to exert greater influence over U.S. social media platforms and frustrations over what authorities say is their failure to follow Russian laws.

Last December, parliament’s lower house backed big new fines on platforms that fail to delete banned content and another bill that would allow them to be restricted if they “discriminate” against Russian media.

Russia rebukes Facebook for blocking some media posts

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia accused Facebook on Monday of violating citizens’ rights by blocking some media outlets’ content in the latest standoff between a government and Big Tech.

Communications watchdog Roskomnadzor at the weekend threatened Facebook with a minimum 1 million rouble ($13,433) fine and demanded it restore access to content posted by TASS news agency, RBC business daily and Vzglyad newspaper.

It said Facebook blocked posts pertaining to Russia’s detention of alleged supporters of a Ukrainian far-right group.

“I think this is unacceptable. It violates our national legislation,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament and a member of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia ruling party.

In a statement, Volodin said Facebook had violated basic rights to disseminate and receive information, and legislation would be proposed to preserve Russia’s “digital sovereignty.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Like other nations, including Australia in a high-profile dispute with Facebook and India in a spat with Twitter, Russia has in recent months taken steps to regulate and curb the power of big social media companies.

Bills passed in December allow Russia to impose large fines on platforms that do not delete banned content and to restrict access to U.S. social media companies if they are deemed to discriminate against Russian media.

“They operate in our environment but at the same time they often don’t obey any Russian laws,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told RIA news agency on Monday.

($1 = 74.3400 roubles)

Alexei Navalny: Putin critic loses appeal against jailing

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has lost an appeal against his jailing for violating the terms of a suspended sentence.

Russia's Alexei Navalny appears in court in Moscow, Russia
image captionIt is the first of two scheduled appearances in court on Saturday for Navalny

Navalny was detained last month after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated for a near-fatal nerve agent attack.

He has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for the attack and says the charges against him are fabricated.

The Kremlin denies any involvement in his poisoning.

Navalny was accused of breaking the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for embezzlement that required him to report regularly to Russian police.

In court, in a speech that referenced both the Bible and the Harry Potter series, he argued the charges were “absurd” as he was unable to report to the police while recovering from the nerve agent attack.

“The whole world knew where I was,” he said. “Once I’d recovered, I bought a plane ticket and came home.”

But the judge rejected his case and he will return to jail. The judge did, though, cut his six weeks off the nearly three-year sentence imposed. 

Navalny faces another appearance in court in Saturday, on charges of slandering a World War Two veteran who praised President Putin.

The European Court of Human Rights, of which Russia is a member, says Navalny should be released out of concern for his life. But Russia said the call was “unlawful”.

Navalny’s supporters see the charges as an attempt to silence him and thwart his political ambitions.

He has been a persistent thorn in the side of President Putin, making allegations of corruption including a claim the president owns a lavish palace by the Black Sea.

Navalny’s allies are seeking to challenge pro-Kremlin parties in parliamentary elections this year, and President Vladimir Putin warned on Thursday against foreign interference.

European foreign ministers are set to meet on Monday to discuss imposing further sanctions on Russia over the case.

There are divisions among EU members, with Germany going ahead with the Nord Stream 2 project which would transfer gas directly from Russia to Germany.

The project is opposed by Poland and the Baltic states. On Friday Lithuania said it should be paused until after September’s parliamentary elections in Russia.

Source: BBC

Moscow court hears case for jailing Putin critic Navalny

A Moscow court is to decide shortly whether to turn Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s suspended sentence into an actual prison term, as police detain more pro-Navalny protesters.

Many riot police – including some on horses – have been deployed outside the court. There have been some arrests.

The anti-Putin campaigner could face up to two and a half years, in a case that has sparked nationwide protests.

Mr Navalny, 44, calls the embezzlement charge fabricated.

The Russian OVD-Info monitoring group reported that 24 people had been detained near the court early on Tuesday.

Arrest near Moscow court, 2 Feb 21
image captionOne of Tuesday’s arrests: Police have cracked down hard on Navalny supporters

Mr Navalny’s return to Russia on 17 January triggered mass protests in support of him, many of them young Russians who have only ever experienced President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

He accuses Mr Putin of running an administration riddled with corruption, and recently released a YouTube video featuring an opulent Black Sea palace which, he alleged, was a Russian billionaires’ gift to the president. More than 100m people have watched it.

On Saturday Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire businessman close to Mr Putin, said he owned the palace and had bought it two years ago.

The OVD-Info group said police detained more than 5,000 people at pro-Navalny protests in 86 cities across the country on Sunday. For a second weekend, crowds defied bitter cold and a massive deployment of riot police.

OVD-Info says it is an independent Russian media project documenting police action against various groups. It gets crowdfunding in Russia and its donors include the Memorial human rights group and the European Commission.

Mr Navalny has been accused of breaking probation rules which required him to report regularly to Russian police over the embezzlement charge. His lawyers say it is absurd he is accused of breaching probation, as the authorities knew he was recovering in Berlin after a nerve agent attack that nearly killed him.

He is already serving a 30-day sentence in connection with that case, which he denounces as politically motivated.

He spent months recovering from the Novichok poisoning – an attack he blamed directly on President Putin. The Kremlin has denied any involvement, and disputes the expert conclusion that Novichok was used.

Just before the court hearing began, Mr Navalny praised his wife Yulia, who is attending in court. She was fined 20,000 roubles (£190; $260) on Monday for having joined the pro-Navalny protesters at an “unauthorised” rally.

“They said that you had seriously violated public order and were a bad girl. I’m proud of you,” Mr Navalny said, quoted by Reuters news agency.

In recent days police have arrested many of Mr Navalny’s top aides, who assist him in his Anti-Corruption Network (FBK).

Navalny: Thousands join fresh protests across Russia

Thousands of Russians have been taking part in unauthorised protests to demand the release of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

More than 5,000 people have been detained, a monitoring group says. In Moscow police closed metro stations and blocked off the city centre.

Mr Navalny was jailed on his return to Russia after recovering from an attempt to kill him with a nerve agent.

He blames the security services for the attack but the Kremlin denies this.

The opposition figure was arrested after arriving in Moscow from Germany, where he spent months recovering from the near-fatal incident.

Russian authorities say Mr Navalny was supposed to report to police regularly because of a suspended sentence for embezzlement.

Mr Navalny has denounced his detention as “blatantly illegal”, saying the authorities had allowed him to travel to Berlin for treatment for the Novichok poisoning, which happened in Russia last August.

protest in Moscow
image captionPolice have restricted movement in central Moscow

Mr Navalny has blamed state security agents under Mr Putin’s orders for the attempt on his life and investigative journalists have named Russian FSB agents suspected of the poisoning. But the Kremlin denies involvement and disputes the conclusion, by Western weapons experts, that Novichok was used.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied reports he is the owner of a vast palace on the Black Sea, as alleged by Mr Navalny in a video that has gone viral in Russia and has been watched more than 100m times.

Grey line

Desire for change as Putin retains support

Analysis box by Sarah Rainsford, Moscow correspondent

It’s risky protesting in Russia. Even if you escape the police batons you can be fired, face a hefty fine or criminal prosecution.

So the fact that people turned out for a second weekend, right across Russia, is significant – the fact that there were fewer than last week, unsurprising.

By blocking off central Moscow, the authorities were trying to prevent a large crowd gathering in one place and so play down the scale of dissent. Instead, they got protesters marching along main city streets to the hoots of passing cars whose passengers waved victory signs in support.

Shopkeepers were drawn to their windows to watch and, in one beauty salon, women in hairnets stood filming on their phones as the crowd filed past.

Most protesters I spoke to said they weren’t fans or followers of Alexei Navalny in particular, but they are shocked at how he’s been treated. They described him as a symbol of resistance and talked of their own desire for change.

None of this means that Vladimir Putin is about to be ousted – he still has significant support. But after two decades in power, the shine has begun to rub off his presidency.

Where were the protests?

In Moscow the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford says protesters played cat-and-mouse with police, getting up close to officers before retreating to safety. Police snatch squads pulled some protesters through the lines of riot shields. Footage showed a stream of people being escorted on to buses by riot police.

Protesters then attempted to reach the Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Mr Navalny is being held.

Mr Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was among those detained at Sunday’s protest. She was later released.

Ahead of the protests she posted on Instagram: “If we stay quiet, then they could come for any of us tomorrow.”

Police said the protests were illegal and Russian authorities warned that the gatherings could spread the coronavirus.

A 40-year-old protester in Moscow told Reuters: “I understand that I live in a totally lawless state. In a police state, with no independent courts. In a country ruled by corruption. I would like to live differently,” she said.

In St Petersburg, Mr Putin’s home city, a crowd gathered in a central square and chanted: “Down with the Tsar.”

St Petersburg rally
image captionCrowds in St Petersburg chanted: “Down with the Tsar”

Rallies in support of Mr Navalny also took place in eastern Russia. In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, at least 2,000 people marched through the city chanting “Freedom” and “Putin is a thief”.

In Yakutsk, where temperatures fell to -40C, a protester named Ivan said it was the first rally he had attended.

“I am tired of the despotism and lawlessness of the authorities. No questions have been answered. I want clarity, openness, and change. This is what made me come here,” he said.

Protesters gather in Ordzhonikidze Square in the city of Yakutsk. 31 Jan 2021
image captionDozens of people in Yakutsk braved the extreme cold to protest against the government

Further rallies saw about 1,000 people demonstrate in Omsk, also in Siberia, and about 7,000 people protest in Yekaterinburg in the Ural region, according to local media reports.

The OVD-Info monitoring group said police had detained more than 5,000 people at protests in 86 cities across the country. They included 1,608 held in Moscow and 1,122 in St Petersburg.

Later on Sunday, Mr Navalny’s Moscow campaign headquarters announced the end of the day’s protests and called on supporters to attend a rally on Tuesday at a Moscow court where a ruling will be made on Mr Navalny’s detention.

protester in vladivostok
image captionA protester in Vladivostok wears a mask that says: “Putin must resign”

A number of close associates of Mr Navalny have been detained since last week and others, including his brother and Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina, have been put under house arrest.

The chief editor of a Russian website specialising in human rights, Sergei Smirnov, was also arrested outside his home on Saturday. News of his detention, apparently over allegations he participated in last week’s protests, has been condemned by other journalists.

In Moscow, police have reportedly been struggling to find space in jail for supporters of the opposition leader.

What reaction has there been?

In a tweet, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he deplored the “widespread detentions and disproportionate use of force”. View original tweet on Twitter

The new US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, condemned “the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists”. 

He called for Mr Navalny and other opposition supporters to be released.

In response, the Russian foreign ministry accused the US of “gross interference” in its internal affairs and of using “online platforms” to promote the protests.