Moscow censors on Friday banned Facebook and restricted other American social media services. Microsoft has banned sales to Russians, following a similar move by Apple. And one of America’s leading Internet data channels, Cogent Communications, has severed ties with its Russian customers to prevent its networks from being used for propaganda or targeted cyber attacks on beleaguered Ukrainians.
Taken together, these and other events will likely make it harder for Russians to follow the horrors unfolding in Ukraine at a time when Russia’s independent media has been all but shut down by President Vladimir Putin. On an even larger scale, these moves bring Russia closer to the day when its online networks will largely be turned inward, their global connections weakened, if not severed entirely.
“I’m very afraid of this,” said Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society, which advocates for digital freedoms in Russia. “I would like to convey to people around the world that if you turn off the Internet in Russia, it means excluding 140 million people from at least some truthful information. As long as the internet exists, people can find out the truth. There will be no Internet – all people in Russia will only listen to propaganda.”
Internet censorship technology in Russia, meanwhile, is getting more and more advanced, said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who authored “The Red Network”, a book on the Internet there. People are increasingly relying on VPNs to access blocked websites by accessing connection points outside of Russia, she said, but there is a risk that those too will be blocked by the government.
“For Russians, it’s very dramatic, and it’s very fast,” Soldatov said. “Which means that people are not just trying to adapt, but to fight back.”
Autocrats in several nations have worked to gain more control over what their citizens see and do online, while also trying to insulate them from outside ideas. Iran disconnected from the global internet for a week in 2019 as the government battled internal unrest. China has for years trapped its citizens behind a “big firewall” of aggressive monitoring and censorship.
But even two weeks ago, the Internet in Russia was relatively free and integrated into the larger online world, allowing civil society to organize, opposition figures to deliver their messages, and ordinary Russians to gain quick access to alternative sources of news at a time when Putin was strangling his nation’s free newspapers and broadcasters.
Just last year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now in prison, used YouTube to spread a devastating denunciation, called “Putin’s Palace”, about his lavish lifestyle. More recently, news from Ukraine, including disturbing images of attacks on dead Russian civilians and soldiers, has poured into social media and online news sources, including Ukrainian news sites.
Patrick Boehler, head of digital strategy at Radio Free Europe, said data from CrowdTangle showed independent Russian-language news around the world was being shared many more times on social media than stories from state media. He said that once the Kremlin lost control of the narrative, it would be difficult to regain control.
Now the last independent journalistic outposts are gone and internet options are increasingly limited due to a combination of forces, all spurred on by the war in Ukraine but coming from both inside and outside Russia.
The internal forces came from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s censor, who on Friday announced plans to block Facebook, which had already been throttled for several days. In a post on popular social media site Telegram, the agency accused Facebook of blocking the free flow of information to Russia after it took steps to fact-check state media and restrict it in Europe. Roskomnadzor said he has sent similar letters to TikTok and Google, the owner of YouTube. Twitter has also confirmed that its service is limited for some people in Russia.
Government censorship also blocked access to the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Deutsche Welle, as well as major Ukrainian websites. The BBC, CNN and other international news outlets said they were suspending reporting in Russia over a new law that could result in up to 15 years in prison for publishing what government officials believe is fake war news.
At the same time, Western companies are increasingly reconsidering their business relationships in Russia, in some cases opting to cut services there. Microsoft said on Friday it would “discontinue many aspects” of its business in Russia to comply with sanctions from the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union. Netscout, a Connecticut-based software vendor, has announced that it will suspend all support and services to Russian companies in accordance with the sanctions.
Ukraine’s Minister for Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov initially lobbied popular consumer companies like Apple, Facebook and Google to withdraw services from Russia. Now he has turned his attention to the companies that make the Internet itself work.
On Friday, Fedorov tweeted that he had sent a letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, asking Amazon to stop providing cloud services to Russia. He sent a similar letter to Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare, an Internet services company that specializes in protecting sites from online attacks. (Bezos owns the Washington Post.)
“Cloudflare shouldn’t be protecting Russian web resources while their tanks and missiles attack our kindergartens,” he said in a tweet earlier this week.
Cogent’s move in itself broke a chunk of the Internet’s vaunted “backbone,” the most important structural element for keeping global data flowing. “A backbone carrier disconnecting its customers in a country the size of Russia is unprecedented in Internet history,” analyst Doug Madory of monitoring firm Kentik wrote in a blog.
Cogent’s move to sever ties with Russian customers began to take effect on Friday and was expected to be implemented over several days, to allow some customers to find alternative sources, the company said.
But the company was forthright in letters to its Russian customers, writing: “In light of the unprovoked and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Cogent will cease all your services effective 5pm GMT on March 4, 2022. The economic sanctions implemented following the invasion and the increasingly uncertain security situation make it impossible for Cogent to continue providing you with the service.
Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer said the company didn’t want to keep ordinary Russians off the internet, but wanted to prevent the Russian government from using Cogent’s networks to launch cyberattacks or spread propaganda against wartime Ukraine .
“Our goal is not to hurt anyone. It’s just not to authorize the Russian government to have another tool in its war chest,” she said.
Russia itself appears to be trying to strike a balance between appeasing its own people and retaliating against US tech companies. The country’s blocking of Facebook hasn’t extended to WhatsApp and Instagram, two services owned by the same parent company, Meta, that are far more popular among Russians. Instagram is used by celebrities, influencers and members of the Russian elite. WhatsApp is widely used for daily calls and communication.
So far, Telegram, founded by Russian entrepreneurs who have since moved their headquarters out of the country, has also been protected. It can gain protection by being a major source of information for all parties. The company has not shut down the government’s RT channel or its other propaganda sources. Opposition content, as well as content from Ukrainians seeking to influence public opinion in Russia, remains available on Telegram.
The Russian government has moved steadily for years to exercise more control over the Internet, including enacting laws that allow Roskomnadzor to disrupt the home Internet and have more control over Web architecture. The government has also forced organizations of media obtaining funding from outside the country to brand themselves as “foreign agents” and, informally, state organizations have bought most of the independent media outlets.
Russians say finding factual, independent sources of information is still possible within the country, mainly thanks to the internet and social media, but it’s a challenge at a time when people are increasingly struggling to navigate an economy. devastated by government sanctions and crackdowns on free speech. Several people in the country agreed to speak only if their names and other identifying information were not released.
“You have to be a sophisticated news consumer to find credible information,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. “Different access from the Kremlin’s point of view requires extra effort.”
But the stakes go beyond news and information, even in this very charged and delicate moment.
Ukrainian officials have lobbied American internet companies to shut down services from Russia and have also asked ICANN, the California-based nonprofit that oversees aspects of internet functionality worldwide, to halt the main Russian Internet domain, .ru.
ICANN rejected the request Wednesday, but other forms of possible disconnection loom as continuing risks as the war escalates alongside global sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression.
Runa Sandvik, a security consultant and developer of the Tor project to circumvent censorship, said that Tor usage has increased and that many Russians are adept at using it and VPNs and sharing news elsewhere in small groups.
But he said the direction things were heading is alarming.
“We are moving towards the point where Russia will have the same internet environment as China,” Sandvik said.
Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.