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

Western powers have seized Russian oligarchs’ yachts and taken Russian banks out of the international system in response to the Ukrainian invasion, but the sanctions that limit Internet access are highly divisive.

Ukraine has loudly called for a widespread boycott and has also pushed Kyiv to cut Russia off from the rest of the world.

International sanctions, including large technology companies, have halted operations in Russia, and the EU has banned platforms such as Facebook and Instagram from banning Russian state media.

According to critics, all this could rule out Kremlin opponents, increase the dominance of the state media and lead Russia to try to develop a closed local version of the Internet.

“It is breaking the few remaining links with the free flow of information and ideas,” says Peter Micek, an Access Now NGO that campaigns for digital rights.

Kremlin crackdowns on journalists have already severely curtailed independent sources of information, forcing many media outlets to shut down or reduce their operations.

Most international social networks are only available through virtual private networks (VPNs), and VPN download figures suggest that many Russians are following this path.

But as access to the network is tightened internally and externally, many experts are now urging the West to take a different approach.

‘Hearts and Minds’

“Surveys need to be focused and accurate,” about 40 researchers, activists and politicians wrote in an open letter last week.

“They should reduce the risk of unintended consequences or side effects. Excessive or excessive sanctions are likely to significantly alienate the population.”

The letter called for the military and propaganda outlets to be targeted. Other experts point out that punishing Russia by shutting down the Internet is both technically and politically difficult.

Ukraine called on global regulator ICANN to do so on February 28, but rejected the request. “If you try to get traffic in through the window, it goes through the basement,” said Ronan David of Efficient IP, a company that specializes in computer network security.

For Micek, it is simply “against the effort to win hearts and minds and spread democratic messages.” “Since it’s the only counter-narrative, the only other narrative comes from the Kremlin,” he says. Access Now lawyer Natalia Krapiva stressed that the people who have suffered from these stories can well conclude that “Russia is trying to help the Ukrainians and is protecting themselves.” In this context, Western sanctions seem “completely unfair,” he says.

fears of ‘splinternet’

It is feared that the war and the freezing of relations between Russia and the West will lead the Kremlin to develop its own Internet.

China has already built a comprehensive control system around its Internet, called the “Great Firewall,” which cuts it off from around the world.

Recent developments in Russia have led some commentators to think that the world is facing the creation of a “splinternet”, anathema to those who campaign for equal access around the world.

“Russians are quite capable of building a national Internet,” said Pierre Bonis of Afnic, the association that manages the .fr domain. But he says it would be a pale imitation of the global Internet.

“We must not break the universality of the Internet, even if the Russians do unacceptable things,” he said. But China is not the only country that has invested heavily in building a closed Internet. Mice said Iran has spent a decade building a controlled and censored version of the web.

“We feel that US sanctions are pushing Iran to build a kind of functional national Internet, depriving Iranian businesses of basic Google, Amazon and other platforms and resources,” he says. And he sees a similar process at stake with Russia.

“People in Russia and Belarus have so little access to information that if they remove Internet services, they will send more to Putin’s fist,” he says.

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