The Russian ‘splinternet’ is here


The blocking of social media platforms is particularly significant because they provide one of the few remaining sources of outside news that are independent of the Russian state government and its media outlets, which have been spreading disinformation and propaganda justifying the invasion.

“The Kremlin is more willing than ever to block these platforms,” said Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber ​​Statecraft Initiative. He said this past week has seen an “unprecedented” escalation of Russians being cut off from Western sources of information — only one of the many ways that Russia is increasingly isolated on the geopolitical stage.

Putin has been steadily pushing to talk to Russia’s internet ecosystem from the rest of the world’s for years, experts said, which means the latest shutdowns are likely to last even beyond the crisis in Ukraine.

“For Putin, this is the last 10 yards of a years-long push to lock down Russia’s information space from not only Western and foreign influence, but even for many opposition or independent elements domestically,” said Gavin Wilde, a former National Security Council official focused on Russia, now a 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 Meta, tweeted on Friday that Russians will be “cut off from reliable information, deprived from their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out.” He said Facebook is working to restore its services.

Twitter said it was aware of the reports that it was also being blocked in Russia, but said it hasn’t seen anything significantly different from what it shared last week — that some users are experiencing difficulties connecting in Russia. At that time, the company stressed the importance of free expression, tweeting: “We believe people should have free and open access to the Internet, which is particularly important during times of crisis.”

The US State Department condemned the blockages, saying in a statement that Russia’s 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 it’s not all the Kremlin’s doing. Some US tech companies are also pulling their products and services from the country to appease wary 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 shut down its Russian cloud service operations.

US internet providers are also growing wary of how state-backed hackers could use their services to spread disinformation and enable cyberespionage. That’s the reason Dave Schaeffer, CEO of internet service provider Cogent, gave for starting to cut off its Russian customers on Friday. Cogent carries about 25 percent of all internet traffic across the globe, and Schaeffer said it is the second-largest carrier in Russia.

Schaeffer estimated that Cogent has a “few dozen” Russian customers who rely on his company’s technology to flow their data through the backbone of the internet. One of those customers is Russia’s largest telecommunications provider, Rostelecom.

“This was not a perfect decision. This is not clear cut,” Schaeffer said in an interview. “It can potentially limit innocent people’s connectivity, but we thought the potential for offensive actions outweighed that.”

Schaeffer said the company is working with some clients on a case-by-case basis to transition them off of Cogent’s services. He did not say what companies were taking over Cogent’s clients.

“We have a number of contingency plans, including cutting off specific customers or specific geographies,” Schaeffer said. “We were not expecting to have to implement it at this scale.”

The company made the decision to pull out on Friday after watching the growing destruction in Ukraine during the past week, where some of Cogent’s employees live and are trying to flee, Schaeffer said.

The Kremlin has long maintained an antagonistic relationship with the American tech companies, hitting them with fines and throttling social media services when they refuse to adhere to Russia’s censorship demands. The companies, meanwhile, have kept some distance from the Russian market but have also taken down 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 differentiated itself from China, another country with an authoritarian regime, by allowing the US tech companies to operate on Russian soil in the first place. (Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are blocked in China.) The tech industry’s latest departures from Russia indicate that Russia is heading down a path similar to China’s.

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

“There’s no question that the internet is fractured along the border with China,” Wilde said. “Now not only the internet, but media writing large is fracturing along 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, which allows the Russian government to have more control over what’s said online. Yandex provides an array of vital internet services, including search, e-commerce and online advertising. Social networking site VK even looks like a Facebook clone, imitating the companies’ blue and white interface.

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

Russia’s communications regulator sent a letter Thursday to Google asking for Google to “immediately stop distributing false political information about a special operation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine in Russia.” Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Western companies that provide news or outside information have a particularly difficult calculus in deciding whether to leave Russia. “If you cut off the country, you’re abandoning everybody,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, vice president of global advocacy at Wikimedia Foundation and a co-founder of Global Voices Online, a citizen-run digital news nonprofit.

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

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

“You have the lack of eyewitness information because you have critical infrastructure being shut off,” she said. “So it’s sort of a worst case scenario in terms of getting real-time accurate information.”

Sam Sabin contributed to this report.


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