Home Internet A new iron curtain descends on the Russian Internet

A new iron curtain descends on the Russian Internet


Advocates of an open, globally connected Internet have long worried that a major country or region would be cut off from the Internet amid geopolitical strife, dashing hopes of a seamless network capable of connecting a tumultuous world.

Less than a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world is closer than ever to this disturbing prophecy.

On Friday, Moscow censors banned Facebook and restricted other American social media services. After a similar move by Apple, Microsoft banned sales to Russians. Cogent Communications, a leading American Internet information channel, cut ties with Russian clients to prevent its networks from being used for propaganda or cyber attacks against besieged Ukrainians.

Taken together, these and other developments are likely to make it harder for Russians to follow the horrors unfolding in Ukraine at a time when Russia’s independent media has been almost completely shut down by President Vladimir Putin. On a broader scale, these steps bring Russia closer to the day when its online networks turn largely inward, and its global connections are weakened, if not completely severed.

“I am very afraid of this,” said Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society, which defends digital freedoms in Russia. “I would like to convey to people all over the world that if you shut down the Internet in Russia, it means cutting off 140 million people from at least a little bit of truthful information. As long as there is internet, people can learn the truth. There will be no Internet – all people in Russia will listen only to propaganda.

Microsoft has stopped sales in Russia

Internet censorship technology is developing in Russia, says Russian journalist Andrey Soldatov, author of the book “Red Internet”. He said people are increasingly relying on VPNs to access blocked websites by accessing hotspots outside of Russia, but there is a risk that they too will be blocked by the government.

“For the Russians, it’s very dramatic and very fast,” Soldatov said. “It means that people are not just trying to fit in, they’re trying to fight back.”

In several countries, autocrats have worked to exert more control over what their citizens see and do online, while also isolating them from outside views. Iran was cut off from the global internet for a week in 2019 as the government grappled with internal unrest. For years, China has trapped its citizens behind a “Great Firewall” of aggressive monitoring and censorship.

Russia’s independent media, which has been under siege for years, is subject to new repressions by Putin

But even two weeks ago, Russia’s internet was relatively free and integrated into the larger online world, allowing civil society to organize, opposition parties to get their message across, and ordinary Russians to have access to alternative news sources in an era of Putin’s stranglehold. nation’s free newspapers and broadcast stations.

Last year, now-imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny used YouTube to help launch a devastating exposé about his lavish lifestyle called “Putin’s Palace.” Recently, reports from Ukraine, including disturbing images of attacks on civilians and dead Russian soldiers, have flooded social media and online news sources, including Ukrainian news sites.

Ukraine’s bloody online campaign hopes to sow resentment against Putin

Patrick Boehler, head of digital strategy at Radio Free Europe, said that CrowdTangle data shows that independent news in Russian is shared more on social media than on state media around the world. According to him, once the Kremlin loses control over the story, it will be difficult to regain it.

Now the last freelance journalist posts are gone, and Internet options are increasingly squeezed by a combination of forces — all stemming from the war in Ukraine, but coming from both within Russia and abroad.

On March 4, Russia seized Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The fighting has sparked a firestorm and Vladimir Putin has called for “normalization” of global relations. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The domestic force came from Russian censor Roskomnadzor, which on Friday announced plans to block Facebook, which has been under pressure for several days now. In a post on the popular social media site Telegram, the agency accused Facebook of obstructing the free flow of information to Russia after taking steps to restrict fact-checking and state media in Europe. Roskomnadzor said that it sent similar letters to Google, the owner of TikTok and YouTube. Twitter has also confirmed that its service is restricted to some people in Russia.

Government censors also blocked access to the BBC, VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Deutsche Welle, as well as to key Ukrainian websites. The BBC, CNN and other international news organizations have said they are suspending reporting in Russia because of a new law that could have given government officials up to 15 years in prison for publishing what they consider false about the war.

US technological superiority may or may not have an impact on Russia

At the same time, Western companies are increasingly reconsidering their business relations in Russia, in some cases preferring to stop services there. Microsoft said on Friday it was “suspending many aspects” of its business in Russia to comply with sanctions from the US, UK and European Union. Netscout, a Connecticut-based software provider, has announced that it will cease all support and services to Russian companies in compliance with the sanctions.

Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, initially pressured popular consumer companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google to withdraw their services from Russia. Now he’s focused on the companies that make the Internet itself work.

On Friday, Fedorov tweeted that he had sent a letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos urging Amazon to stop providing cloud services in Russia. He sent a similar letter to Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare, an internet services company that specializes in protecting websites from online attacks. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“Cloudflare should not protect Russian web resources while their tanks and missiles attack our kindergartens,” he tweeted earlier this week.

The Cogent move itself broke part of the Internet’s vaunted “backbone”—the most important structural element in maintaining the global flow of information. “A major carrier disconnecting its customers in a country the size of Russia is unprecedented in Internet history,” Doug Madory, an analyst at monitoring firm Kentik, wrote in a blog post.

Cogent’s move to cut ties with Russian customers took effect Friday and was supposed to be spread over several days to allow some customers to find alternative sources, the company said.

However, the company clearly wrote in its letters to its Russian customers: “In light of the unwarranted and unwarranted invasion of Ukraine, Cogent is suspending all your services from 17:00 GMT on March 4, 2022. Economic sanctions are applied. As a result of the invasion and the increasingly uncertain security situation, it is impossible for Cogent to continue serving you.”

“Microsoft” company stopped its sales in Russia, dealing a big blow to the Russian economy

Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer said the company does not want to keep ordinary Russians off the Internet, but wants to prevent the Russian government from using Cogent’s networks to launch cyberattacks or propaganda targeting wartime Ukraine.

“Our goal is not to harm anyone. This is simply to prevent the Russian government from having another weapon in their war chests.”

Russia itself appears to be trying to strike a balance between appeasing its own people and retaliating against US tech companies. The country’s Facebook block did not apply to WhatsApp and Instagram, two services owned by the same parent company, Meta, and more popular among Russians. Instagram is used by celebrities, influencers and members of the Russian elite. WhatsApp is widely used for calls and daily communication.

In addition, Telegram, founded by Russian entrepreneurs who have since moved their headquarters out of the country, is still protected. He can gain protection by being the leading source of information for all parties. The company has not cut off the government’s RT channel or other sources of propaganda. Opposition content, as well as content from Ukrainians seeking to influence opinion in Russia, remains available on Telegram.

The Russian government has been moving steadily for years to exert more control over the Internet, including passing laws that allow Roskomnadzor to cut off the local Internet and exercise more control over Web architecture. The government has also forced media organizations that receive funding from outside the country to label themselves as “foreign agents,” and unofficially, state organizations have purchased most independent media channels.

Russians say it’s still possible to find factual, independent sources of information in the country — largely thanks to the Internet and social media — but that’s a problem at a time when people are increasingly struggling with a sanctions-hit economy and government crackdowns on free speech. . Several people in the country agreed to speak only if their names and other identifying information were not published.

“You have to be a sophisticated news consumer to find reliable information,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It takes extra effort to act differently from the Kremlin’s point of view.”

But the risks go beyond news and information — even at this highly charged, sensitive moment.

Ukrainian officials have lobbied American Internet companies to cut services from Russia and have also asked ICANN, the California-based nonprofit organization that oversees aspects of Internet functions worldwide, to suspend Russia’s top Internet domain, .ru.

ICANN rejected the request on Wednesday, but other forms of possible disconnection, such as an escalation of the war and increased global sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression, appear to be ongoing risks.

Runa Sandvik, a security consultant and developer of the Tor Project to evade censorship, said Tor use is growing and many Russians are adept at using it and VPNs and sharing news from elsewhere in small groups.

But he said the direction things are going is exciting.

“We are moving towards the point where Russia has the same Internet environment as China,” Sandvik said.

Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.

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