Ukraine crisis: Russia’s war to keep the Internet free

Western powers have seized the yachts of Russian oligarchs and booted Russian banks from the international system in response to the Ukraine invasion, but sanctions restricting Internet access are proving extremely divisive.

Ukraine has called for a massive boycott and Kiev has even pressured Russia to disassociate itself from the World Wide Web.

International sanctions have seen companies, including major technology companies, shut down operations in Russia, and EU sanctions on Russian state media outlets have prompted the Kremlin to ban platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.

Critics say all of this could marginalize Kremlin opponents, increase state media dominance and even lead Russia to try to create a sealed, localized version of the Internet.

“This is breaking some remaining ties with the free flow of information and ideas,” said Peter Mikek of Access Now, an NGO that advocates for digital rights.

The Kremlin’s crackdown on journalists has already severely curtailed independent sources of information, forcing many media outlets to shut down or scale their operations.

Most international social networks are now only available through the Virtual Private Network (VPN), with VPN download statistics suggesting that a lot of Russians are following this path.

But with web access being curtailed from within and without, many experts are now urging the West to take a different approach.

‘Heart and Mind’

“Sanctions should be focused and specific,” about 40 researchers, activists and politicians wrote in an open letter last week.

“Their potential for unintended consequences or parallel damage should be minimized. Inconsistent or over-elaborate sanctions pose a risk of fundamentally isolating the population.”

The letter called for targeting military and propaganda outlets. Other experts point out that it is technically and politically difficult to punish Russia by shutting down the Internet.

Ukraine called on ICANN, the global regulator, to do so on February 26, but the request was denied. “If you try to stop traffic from entering through windows, it only comes through the seller,” explains Ronan David of IP, a firm specialized in securing computer networks.

For Mikek, this is simply “the opposite of trying to win hearts and minds and spread the message of democracy.” “Because the only counter-narrative, the only other narrative coming from the Kremlin,” he said. Natalia Krapiva, a lawyer for Access Now, highlights that people may be exposed to these statements, concluding that “Russia is trying to help the Ukrainians and is defending itself.” In this context, Western sanctions may seem “completely unfair,” he said.

Fear of splinternet

The big fear is that the war and the deepening stalemate in relations between Russia and the West will lead the Kremlin to develop its own Internet.

China has already built a huge system of controls around its Internet, called the “Great Firewall”, which has virtually isolated it from the rest of the world.

Recent events in Russia have led some commentators to speculate that the world is facing the creation of a “splinternet”, anathema for those campaigning for equal access around the world.

“The Russians are strong enough to build a national Internet,” said Pierre Bonis of Afnic, a .fr domain management company. But he says it will be a pale imitation of the global Internet.

“We must not violate the universality of the Internet, even if the Russians do something unacceptable,” he said. However, China is not the only country that has invested heavily in building closed internet. Mikek noted that Iran has spent a decade creating its own controlled, censored version of the web.

“We believe that US sanctions are encouraging Iran to create this functional national Internet by depriving Iranian businesses of basic Google, Amazon and other platforms and resources,” he said. And he sees the same process in playing with Russia.

“The people of Russia and Belarus have so little access to information that depriving them of Internet access would further put them in Putin’s hands,” he said.

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