The Russian “splinter net” is here


The blocking of social media platforms is particularly significant as they represent one of the few remaining sources of outside news independent of the Russian state government and its media, which have been spreading disinformation and propaganda to justify the invasion.

“The Kremlin is more poised than ever to block these platforms,” ​​said Justin Sherman, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber ​​Statecraft Initiative. He said over the past week there has been an “unprecedented” escalation of Russians being cut off from Western sources of information – just one of the many ways Russia is becoming increasingly isolated on the geopolitical stage.

Putin has been pushing for years to unbundle Russia’s internet ecosystem from the rest of the world, experts said, meaning the recent shutdowns are likely to last even beyond the Ukraine crisis.

“For Putin, these are the final 10 yards of a year-long push to seal off Russia’s information space from not only Western and foreign influence, but even many domestic opposition or independent elements,” said Gavin Wilde, a former National Security Council official with a focus on Russia. now Managing Consultant at Krebs Stamos Group.

Russia’s restrictions on social media companies will limit Russian users’ access to independent information and users’ ability to respond to the crisis in real time, the companies say.

Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Facebook’s parent company Meta, tweeted on Friday that Russians are “cut off from reliable information, deprived of their day-to-day contact with family and friends, and prevented from speaking out.” He said Facebook is working to restore its services.

Twitter said it was aware of reports it was also being blocked in Russia, but said it didn’t see anything significantly different than what it is shared last week — that some users are having trouble connecting in Russia. The company then stressed the importance of free speech, tweeting: “We believe that people should have free and open access to the Internet, which is especially important in times of crisis.”

The US State Department condemned the blockades, saying in a statement that the Russian bans further limit tens of millions of Russians’ access to independent news about the invasion and violate an international right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But that’s not all the Kremlin does. Some US tech companies are also pulling their products and services out of the country to reassure cautious investors and prevent the Russian government from spreading misinformation through their channels. Microsoft and Apple have suspended new sales of their products, including iPhones and business software, in the country. Oracle has suspended its Russian cloud service operations.

US ISPs are also becoming increasingly suspicious of how state-backed hackers could be using their services to spread disinformation and facilitate cyberespionage. That’s why Dave Schaeffer, CEO of internet service provider Cogent, started taking his Russian customers offline on Friday. Cogent carries about 25 percent of all Internet traffic around the world, and Schaeffer said it’s the second-biggest carrier in Russia.

Schaeffer estimates that Cogent has “a few dozen” Russian customers who rely on his company’s technology to get their data across the Internet backbone. One of these customers is Russia’s largest telecommunications provider, Rostelecom.

“It wasn’t a perfect decision. That’s not clear,” said Schaeffer in an interview. “It can potentially limit the connectivity of innocent people, but we thought the potential for offensive action outweighed that.”

Schaeffer said the company is working with some customers on a case-by-case basis to transition them away from Cogent’s services. He did not say which companies acquired Cogent’s customers.

“We have a number of contingency plans in place, including shutting down specific customers or specific regions,” Schaeffer said. “We didn’t expect to have to implement it on this scale.”

The company made the decision to pull out on Friday after witnessing mounting destruction in Ukraine over the past week, where some Cogent employees live and are trying to flee, Schaeffer said.

The Kremlin has long maintained an antagonistic relationship with American tech companies, fines them and throttles social media services when they refuse to comply with Russia’s demands for censorship. The companies, meanwhile, have kept some distance from the Russian market but have also removed material at the Kremlin’s request, including a decision by Google and Apple last year to remove a voting app created for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

But Russia set itself apart from China, another country with an authoritarian regime, by allowing US tech companies to operate on Russian soil at all. (Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms are blocked in China.) The tech industry’s recent departures from Russia suggest that Russia is following a path similar to China’s.

Wilde said autocracies like China and Russia have long had the idea that they should control the internet in their countries.

“There is no question that the internet broke along the border with China,” Wilde said. “Now not only the internet is collapsing, but also the media on the border with Russia.”

And Russia has been investing in its own internet ecosystem for years. With the support of the Kremlin, Russians have created their own social media platforms to compete with Western social media, giving the Russian government more control over what is said online. Yandex provides a number of important Internet services, including search, e-commerce and online advertising. Social networking site VK even looks like a Facebook clone, mimicking the companies’ blue-and-white interface.

Still, YouTube remains the top social media platform in Russia, with 80 to 85 percent of Russians using the video streaming platform. Facebook itself is not that popular, but its Instagram photo platform and WhatsApp messaging service serve as important communication networks for Russians. The Russian government hasn’t blocked Google’s YouTube, WhatsApp or Instagram, but experts said it’s likely the companies will pull out or the Kremlin will force them to.

The Russian Communications Authority sent a letter to Google on Thursday, urging Google to “immediately stop disseminating false political information in Russia about a special operation by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine.” Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Western companies that disseminate news or information from outside have a particularly difficult calculation when deciding whether to leave Russia. “If you cut off the country, you’re letting everyone down,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, vice president of global advocacy at the Wikimedia Foundation and co-founder of Global Voices Online, a citizen-led digital news nonprofit.

In addition to the Russian media regulator blocking Facebook, the Putin-controlled Russian parliament passed an emergency law that would punish anyone who spreads “fake news” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

Laura Manley, the executive director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said Russia is creating a perfect situation to control its narrative and limit external coverage of its Ukrainian invasion by Western social media sources.

“They have the lack of eyewitness information because critical infrastructure is being shut down,” she said. “So it’s kind of a worst-case scenario when it comes to getting accurate information in real-time.”

Sam Sabin contributed to this report.


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