Russia Threatens to Block YouTube and Instagram, After Complaints From an Oligarch

The Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska, center, is the subject of an investigation by the anti-corruption activist and opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny. Credit Alexei Nikolsky/TASS, via Getty Images

MOSCOW — Russia has threatened to block YouTube and Instagram if they do not take down videos and photos relating to Oleg V. Deripaska, an oligarch who was once close to President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

A billionaire aluminum and mining magnate, Mr. Deripaska was the subject of an investigation published last Thursday on YouTube by the anticorruption activist and opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.

Mr. Navalny’s team scoured social media accounts belonging to a 21-year-old Belarus-born blogger, Anastasia Vashukevich, who posted videos in 2016 that showed Mr. Deripaska sailing on his yacht around Norway with a deputy prime minister, Sergei E. Prikhodko. At one point, Mr. Deripaska appears to be explaining to the blogger why relations between Russia and the United States are so bad. (Mr. Deripaska was an investor in a private equity firm controlled by Mr. Manafort, but the two men had a falling out.)

Ms. Vashukevich had written a tell-all book about her career as a model and escort, and claimed that a modeling agency hired her to spend time on Mr. Deripaska’s yacht. But her claims did not get widespread attention until Mr. Navalny’s inquiry was published.

Mr. Deripaska quickly filed a lawsuit, in the town of Ust-Labinsk in Russia’s southern Krasnodar region, a place where he went to school and pays taxes.


Sergei E. Prikhodko, Russia’s deputy prime minister, appeared in videos from 2016 showing him with Mr. Deripaska on the oligarch’s yacht. Credit Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik, via Associated Press

On Saturday, the government’s media and telecommunications watchdog agency, known as Roskomnadzor, ordered YouTube to remove seven videos and ordered Instagram to take down 14 posts, all cited in the investigation. The companies were given three business days to block access to the content, or face investigation. 

It also ordered Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation to remove the text of the investigation and ordered YouTube to remove Mr. Navalny’s video.

As of Monday, the video was still accessible in Russia, and had been viewed more than four million times. It has also been generously covered by various independent Russian media outlets.

YouTube has not decided how to respond to the legal notice, according to a person who was granted anonymity to discuss the company’s thinking. YouTube has informed the uploader of the legal notice, but has not told it to take it down, this person said, adding that if YouTube were to comply, it would not take down the video from YouTube globally, but block it only on the Russian YouTube site.

An Instagram representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A representative of Mr. Deripaska accused the companies of conspiring in a bid to promote Ms. Vashukevich’s book.

“The media seized upon Navalny’s information attack and began illegally republishing private photographs,” the business publication Vedomosti quoted the representative as saying.

Mr. Navalny published his investigation on YouTube, but Russia has threatened to block access to YouTube and Instagram if videos and photographs relating to Mr. Deripaska are not taken down.
Credit Jean-Francois Badias/Associated Press

The agency also instructed six Russian-language news outlets to delete or redact articles relating to the Navalny investigation, and at least two have complied.

A court injunction of this sort against content hosted on Instagram and YouTube is unprecedented for Russia, an agency representative told Vedomosti.

The tactic may signal a more aggressive approach by the Russian government in its bid to rein in social media and video-sharing websites popular in the country. Since not all internet service providers in Russia are able to cut access to individual web pages, they may be forced to block YouTube and Instagram if the companies fail to comply with the Roskomnadzor order. 

On Monday, Mr. Navalny said that both the court and the agency were doing the bidding of Mr. Prikhodko and Mr. Deripaska. “It turns out that the oligarch Deripaska has not only a pocket court but a whole pocket town,” he said.

Mr. Navalny linked the attempt to block his website with his campaign to boycott the presidential election on March 18, which Mr. Navalny was barred from running in. He called for his viewers to help give his latest corruption investigation the widest exposure.

“It wasn’t me who sailed on a yacht, it wasn’t me who hired prostitutes for fun, it wasn’t me who took bribes from an oligarch in the form of airplane flights and expensive cruises,” he said on Monday, “but the singular, lightning-fast attack of the government is directed against me and my foundation, who exposed the corruption. This is a war of our dissemination against their blockage. And it’s one we have to win.”

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