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Moscow officials had the means and the precedent to turn off cellular Internet connections during Saturday’s election protest

Источник: Meduza
Yevgeny Odinokov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

Protesters who marched to demand fair elections in downtown Moscow on August 3 reported that Internet connections stopped working on their mobile devices during the event. Journalists who reported on the protest also reported a lack of service.

Most of the complaints were related to cellular connections: mobile phone users found that around 1:00 PM, an hour before the scheduled start time of the protest, 3G and LGE connections stopped working properly in central Moscow. Meduza Photo Editor Alexandra Gorokhova, who reported on the protest, said that her Beeline device experienced total signal outages several times during the course of the afternoon. MTS customer and Dozhd correspondent Maria Borzunova told Meduza that she experienced similar problems and was even unable to receive ordinary phone calls.

Mikhail Klimarev, the director of the nonprofit Internet Defense Society, noted on his Telegram channel ZaTelekom that Beeline and MTS cellular towers were operating in Edge/GSM mode in the areas where their users experienced outages, meaning that the towers were not connected to 3G or LTE networks at all. Russia’s third major cellular service provider, MegaFon, did not turn off its LTE service, but Klimarev noted that “many users complained about service quality” on MegaFon devices as well. Meduza was unable to find a significant number of complaints about MegaFon’s services on Twitter, and Dozhd’s Borzunova said that a modem connected to MegaFon’s network was able to function during the protest.

What Russian cellular operators say

Klimarev suggested that cellular operators turned off their mobile services on Boulevard Ring, where the protest took place, on orders from government officials. Meanwhile, the companies themselves argued that there were no mass signal outages at all.

An MTS representative told RBC on Saturday that its network was working in its usual mode and that he had not heard about any outages on the local level. On Monday, August 5, MTS Press Secretary Alexey Merkutov told Meduza he had nothing to add to that statement. On social media, the cell service provider responded to angry customers by claiming that there were “no limitations” coming from their end. At least one MTS customer was offered a discount after threatening to switch to a new provider. In a different case, a customer service employee wrote that the company received “isolated complaints” on Saturday and that those users’ problems were solved “within a few hours.”

VimpelCom Press Secretary Anna Aibasheva also told RBC that the Beeline network, which belongs to the company, was working as usual on Saturday, though she added that the large number of people gathered in central Moscow could cause “intermittent overloads.” VimpelCom’s press service did not respond to Meduza’s written request for comment.

A MegaFon representative responded in much the same way, saying nobody asked the company to jam its own signal, but large crowds can lead to overloads in 4G networks. Meduza received the same response to its request for comment.

Neither MegaFon nor VimpelCom clarified how many users would have to gather in one place in order to overload a 4G network. Klimarev told Meduza that all of Russia’s major cellular services were working normally during the capital’s July 20 election protest, which had received a permit from local officials. According to the organization “Belyi Shchetik” (White Counter), 22,500 people attended that event (Moscow police reported a crowd of 12,000).

Shashlik vs. protests

Dozhd correspondent Kogershin Sagieva spent her Saturday covering the Shashlik Live festival in Gorky Park. Sagieva told Meduza that her cellular service was working fine: she was able to connect with other devices over Skype, albeit with a low-quality video stream. According to the Moscow government, 90,000 people were at the festival when Sagieva made her Skype call; 305,000 people were estimated to have attended the event in total.

Cellular service customers did not complain about any mass outages in Gorky Park. MTS and MegaFon representatives ignored Meduza’s inquiries about whether there had been any connection problems in the area. Gorky Park contains about 200 hectares (almost 500 acres) of land, while the area around Boulevard Ring where protesters experienced service disruptions spans approximately 13 square kilometers (3,212 acres), according to the Internet Defense Society.

Combining all those figures along with the Moscow police estimate that 1,500 people attended the August 3 protest leads to a rather surprising conclusion: The 305,000 people gathered at Shashlik Live did not disrupt cellular connections in the area while a group of protesters 200 times smaller experienced outages while walking around an area 6.5 times larger.

The fact that the outages in question affected the entire area rather than individual customers is also quite clear. The nonprofit organization NetBlocks detected a systemic anomaly in a Rostelecom network during the August 3 protest. NetBlocks hypothesized that the irregularity in their data circled in the graph below was caused by mobile data cuts and Wi-Fi disruption.

Klimarev of the Internet Defense Society told Meduza that public Wi-Fi networks also saw cuts during the protest. Specifically, Klimarev said he received reports of police officers approaching the administrators of those networks and asking for their Wi-Fi services to be turned off. Because the officers had no warrants or other written orders, some public Wi-Fi networks continued to function while others did not. Blogger Denis Styazhkin added that employees at a nearby location of Shokoladnitsa, a Moscow café chain, told him that police had asked them to turn off the café’s Wi-Fi.

Traces of Ingushetia

If one does assume that cellular operators did not place any limits on their services during the protest, then the outages may have been caused by police officers using signal jammers themselves. However, Klimarev does not believe that was the case: If police had used jammers, then neither GSM nor Wi-Fi connections nor the officers’ own communication networks would have worked at all. “Using jammers would be like putting tanks in the middle of Moscow,” he said.

During the course of the protest, both ordinary cell calls and SMS messages tended to go through more often than not. Klimarev suggested that government officials simply ordered cellular operators to turn off their 3G and LTE services at stations near Boulevard Ring, meaning that cellular Internet service would fail while GSM calls would still work normally.

Klimarev also noted that Russia has recently seen similar incidents in other regions: In the fall of 2018, during a series of protests in Ingushetia, activists and journalists reported that Beeline, MTS, and MegaFon customers were all experiencing cellular Internet outages. While government officials did not comment on the outages at the time, Russia’s censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, implied in November that officials had ordered the cuts. In response to customer complaints, Roskomnadzor wrote that it would not punish cellular service providers for the outages because they had been following Article 64 of Russia’s central communications law. That statute obligates cellular operators to cut their services if they receive a written order to that effect from government officials. While it is not clear who gave that order in November, an anonymous source told Kommersant that “this was a matter of defending [Russia’s] constitutional structure.”

Klimarev noted that Russian cell service providers are not only legally obligated to cut services to their customers on demand; they also do not have the right to publicly report those cuts. Article 64 includes a clause indicating that companies must “take measures to avoid revealing organizational and tactical strategies” used in law enforcement operations.

Report by Sultan Suleimanov

Translation by Hilah Kohen