Moscow activists say telcos disrupted mobile coverage during protests, at order of police

Several activists complained about widespread network disruptions during the May 5 protests in Russia // Ervins Strauhmanis, Flickr CC BY 2.0, collage by Runet Echo

Two days before Vladimir Putin's official inauguration into his fourth term as the president of Russia, protests broke out across the country.

In multiple cities on May 5, crowds of protesters chanted the slogan “he is not a tsar to us.”

Many protesters were violently dispersed by riot police, with hundreds arrested, many of them teenagers.

It’s not a joke at all, cops are violently apprehending kids, which is a clear violation of the law.

At the height of the protests, several activists reported that their mobile phone signals became weak or non-existent. Some said Russian telecom operators were intentionally degrading the quality of service or even delisting their numbers at the orders of the authorities.

Mediazona, an independent online outlet which covers political trials and Russia’s prison systems, said their own reporter felt the consequences:

Yesterday Tele2 [one of Russia’s telecom operators] switched off both the cell phone coverage and the mobile internet access around Pushkinskaya square (our reporter felt it himself.) The operator blamed the disruptions on “quality of service improvement works” which happened to be held on May 5.

Mediazona attached to their tweet a screenshot of a chat between a Tele2 customer and the operator’s customer service department:

Tele2: Приносим извинения за неудобства, в компании проводились работы по улучшению качества связи, из-за чего могли возникать временные ограничения. На данный момент ограничений не зафиксировано. Возможно, что-то еще можем подсказать?
Абонент: улучшения вот прямо в определенном месте и в определенный момент? Я правильно понял?
Tele2: Да, в определенное время. Работы затрагивали указанный вами адрес. Подсказать что-то еще?

Tele2: Please accept our apologies for this inconvenience, our company was working on improving the quality of service which may have led to disruptions. There are no service disruptions at the moment. Is there anything else I could help you with?
Customer: You were improving the quality of your service in this particular place at this particular time? Did I get this right?
Tele2: Yes, it was this specific time period. The maintenance works affected the area you mentioned. Is there anything else I could help you with?

Activists also saw evidence of Beeline, Russia’s second largest telecom operator customer, de-listing phone numbers. Denis Styazhkin said the company de-listed his number on police orders:

Beeline finally unblocked my number and here’s their response: the number was blocked at the law enforcement’s request!!!!
Screenshot: Phone number [redacted], Denis Styazhkin. Why is it blocked?????
Response: Hello! Your number has been suspended at the law enforcement authorities’ request. It has already been unblocked.

In a statement to the press, a Beeline representative denied de-listing phone numbers on police orders, and claimed not to have de-listed Styazhkin's number. The company blamed the disruptions on network overload, and added that Styazhkin could have been blocked for violating the terms of service, not specifying a particular violation.

Other activists have also reported widespread network disruptions on multiple major telecom operators during the protests.

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