The Struggle To Keep The Internet Free In Russia
In response to the invasion of Ukraine, Western powers have confiscated Russian oligarchs’ yachts and kicked Russian banks out of the international system, but sanctions restricting internet access are proving deeply divisive.
Ukraine has vociferously called for a widespread boycott, and Kyiv has even pushed for Russia to be cut off from the World Wide Web.
International sanctions have prompted companies, including big tech firms, to halt operations in Russia, and EU bans on Russian state media have prompted the Kremlin to ban platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Critics say all of this could sideline opponents of the Kremlin, increase the dominance of state media and even lead to Russia attempting to develop a local, hermetic version of the Internet.
“It just breaks what few connections there are to the free flow of information and ideas,” says Peter Micek of Access Now, a digital rights NGO.
A Kremlin crackdown on journalists has already slashed independent news sources, forcing many media outlets to shut down or scale back their activities.
Most international social networks are now only available through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and the numbers downloading VPNs suggest that many Russians are going down this route.
But with access to the internet both inside and outside being restricted, many experts are now urging the West to take a different approach.
‘Heart and Mind’
“Sanctions must be specific and precise,” wrote around 40 researchers, activists, and politicians in an open letter last week.
“You should minimize the risk of unintended consequences or collateral damage. Disproportionate or overly broad sanctions could alienate people.”
The letter called for an attack on the military and the propaganda media.
Other experts point out that punishing Russia by shutting down the internet is technically and politically complicated.
Ukraine appealed to global regulator ICANN on February 28 to do so, but the request was denied.
“If you try to block traffic through the window, it goes through the basement,” says Ronan David of Efficient IP, a company that specializes in securing computer networks.
For Micek it is simply “counterproductive to win hearts and minds and spread democratic messages“.
“Because the only counter-narrative, the only other narrative, comes from the Kremlin,” he says.
Natalia Krapiva, a lawyer for Access Now, points out that people exposed to these stories may well come to the conclusion that “Russia is trying to help Ukrainians and protect itself.”
In this context, Western sanctions may seem “completely unjust,” he says.
The big fear is that the war and the deepening freeze in relations between Russia and the West will push the Kremlin to develop its own internet.
China has already built a vast system of controls around its internet dubbed the “Great Firewall,” effectively isolating it from the rest of the world.
Recent events in Russia have led some commentators to speculate that the world is about to create a “splinter net,” anathema to those who advocate equal access around the world.
“Russians are perfectly capable of building a national Internet,” said Pierre Bonis of Afnic, the association that manages the .fr domain.
But he says it’s a pale imitation of the global internet.
“We must not break the universality of the Internet, even if the Russians do unacceptable things,” he says.
But China isn’t the only country that has invested heavily in building a closed internet.
Micek points out that Iran has spent a decade building its own controlled and censored version of the internet.
“We believe that the US sanctions are somehow encouraging Iran to build this working national internet by depriving Iranian companies of Google, Amazon, and other core platforms and resources,” he said.
And you can see a similar process with Russia.
“People in Russia and Belarus have so little access to information that stripping them of internet services would put them even further in Putin’s grip,” he says.