Sanctions in the Twenty-First Century: UK Imposes Social Media Restrictions in Response to Continued Russian Aggression

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[co-author: Alex Cotia]

Alex Cotia, Regulatory Manager and Compliance Adviser at The Volkov Law Group, rejoins us for a post on the United Kingdom’s Russia Sanctions against social media.

Under a statutory instrument promulgated under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 (amending the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019)), the UK government recently passed sweeping new trade restrictions on the provision of internet and online social media content to UK parties by designated Russian entities. The instrument contains a number of prohibitions that further the UK’s stated intention of punishing the regime of Vladimir Putin for its “illegal annexation” of Crimea in 2014 and “special military operation” that continues unabated in the sovereign territory of Ukraine. The demonstrable focus of the new restrictions is on preventing UK parties from accessing a continuous stream of disinformation being propagated by Putin and his allies.

Under the instrument, “social media services”—including popular video sharing platforms—must take “reasonable steps” to prevent content that is generated directly on the service or otherwise uploaded or shared on the service by a designated person from being accessed by a UK person. In addition, the instrument requires internet service providers (both fixed and wireless) to take similar “reasonable steps” to prevent users of the service in the UK from accessing websites associated with a designated person (URL blocking). The instrument likewise requires that mobile application stores (e.g., Apple and others) take “reasonable steps” to prevent users of the application store in the UK from downloading or otherwise accessing an application provided by a designated person. As with similar statutory instruments issued in the wake of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, the social media sanctions instrument empowers the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to designate persons to whom the new restrictions will apply. The instrument further empowers the UK’s Office of Communications or “Ofcom”—the UK’s chief communications regulator—to investigate potential violations of the social media sanctions and to impose civil monetary penalties on any person or entity failing to comply with its requirements. Criminal penalties may also be imposed on persons who fails to cooperate with an Ofcom investigation into potential sanctions violations. As of June 1, 2022, however, only two (2) entities—namely, Rossiya Segodnya (the official news agency of the Russian Federation) and TV-Novosti (which owns and operates the RT network)—have been designated by the UK government on its official Sanctions List as subject to “Internet Service Sanctions.”

While restricting the ability of UK persons to access prohibited content is permissible under the laws of that jurisdiction, it is hard to imagine similar measures being imposed by the United States, where fundamental First Amendment protections of speech and press ensure that no governmental agency may act as an official censor. Little, if any, controversy has been generated by the UK’s social media sanctions—likely owing to the disreputable nature of the sanctioned parties—but governments like the UK (where freedom of speech is more qualified) should exercise significant caution in limiting the free flow of information—even at the risk of enabling the dissemination of false or misleading information. In the ongoing struggle against authoritarian regimes, the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the UK and its allies is fidelity to core democratic principles that promote and foster—rather than restrict—freedom.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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