Russia says ‘nyet,’ continues LinkedIn block after it refuses to store data in Russia

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Russia’s internet regulator today confirmed that access to social networking site LinkedIn — which has been blocked in Russia since November 2016 — is not returning to Russia anytime soon, after it received a letter from the social network’s VP of global public policy stating that LinkedIn will not move Russian user data to Russian territory. LinkedIn, which is now owned by Microsoft and has 6 million users in the country, told TechCrunch that it is still working on lifting the ban.

The bigger story here has been how Russia has enforced its rules to control how internet sites work in the country. In the case of data storage, Russia has argued that storing data within national borders is done in the name of protecting Russian internet users. Skeptics believe it simply creates an easier route for Russia to access that data itself.

A short statement (in Russian) on regulator Roskomnadzor’s website notes that Pablo Chavez, LinkedIn’s counsel, said LinkedIn is not ready to clear its violations of Russian law, which requires internet companies to store Russian citizens’ data on Russian servers.

The statement ends with a surprisingly broad conclusion to emphasize the point (italics ours): “The company has refused to fulfill the requirement of localization of databases with personal data of Russian citizens on the territory of the Russian Federation, thus confirming its lack of interest in the Russian market.”

For a little extra dramatic (and pretty Russian) effect, the regulator also tweeted this:

Contacted for a response, LinkedIn, unsurprisingly, said it is still trying to negotiate with the Russian authorities, after the regulator not only blocked access to its website but in January proceeded to order app stores to remove LinkedIn’s apps.

“LinkedIn’s vision is to create economic opportunity for the global workforce. We are disappointed with Roskomnadzor’s action to block LinkedIn as it denies access to our services for our members and customers in Russia,” said a spokesperson.

“While we believe we comply with all applicable laws, and despite conversations with Roskomnadzor, including meeting with them in Moscow in December 2016, we have been unable to reach an understanding that would see them lift the block on LinkedIn in the Russian Federation. LinkedIn will continue to be available in the Russian language, and we hope that we are able to restore service in Russia in the future.”

LinkedIn currently counts 465 million users globally, so Russia represents a relatively small proportion of the company’s audience — just 1.3 percent. However, it’s not a stagnant market: That number grew by 1 million since November.

(As is often the case with these blocks, if you are in the country and use a VPN service that essentially makes you look like you’re online in another country, you can continue to use LinkedIn and anything else that is or might get blocked. This might be one reason why the numbers continue to grow.)

A story parallel to the data storage theme has been how Russia controls what content it allows to appear on publicly accessible sites and apps, and blocking sites and apps that violate its content rules.

This, too, is done in the name of protecting users, although a more skeptical view could be that it shows that Russia is keeping a close watch on what is being published on the web, and it’s not afraid to let large internet companies know that it’s prepared to act if something crosses the line.

One example from last week involved Instagram removing 300 pictures relating to “suicidal content.” The suicidal content rule has also seen both GitHub and YouTube blocked in the past.

In both the case of data storage and censorship, the implications are chilling when you consider the ongoing investigations and allegations about what role Russia may have played in hacking in the U.S. and spinning stories to influencing major events like the U.S. election — a theme that recurred even today with the WikiLeaks dump of a data trove allegedly leaked from the CIA.

With data storage, it has been an inconsistent story so far both for Russia and LinkedIn.

The social network is not completely opposed to complying with national regulations when it comes to rules like this. When LinkedIn launched in China, it did so by building essentially a completely separate site, with data hosted within the country, in order to meet similar regulatory requirements.

And in the case of data storage in Russia, as we’ve noted before, there seem to be a number of international sites accessible in Russia right now that do not host data within the country.

Facebook and Twitter, both accessible in Russia, are among those that today appear still to keep their data housed out of RussiaApple and Google reportedly have complied. Asked by TechCrunch earlier today, Microsoft declined to comment on whether it has any data centers in the country. (One note some time ago implied that Azure does not have a Russia region, and this map indicates that it still does not. Microsoft offers these guidelines for how businesses in Russia should handle alternatives to comply with the local laws.)

As we’ve said before, it’s not clear why LinkedIn was targeted here, but the fact that it’s now owned by Microsoft does raise the stakes for both sides. Two questions are whether Microsoft will wade in to help LinkedIn, or, conversely, if Russia would consider trying to extend its influence and control to the services run by LinkedIn’s much larger parent, too.