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A new iron curtain falls on the Internet in Russia

On Friday, Moscow censors banned Facebook and strangled other American social media services. Microsoft has banned sales to Russians, following a similar move by Apple. And a major US internet data channel, Cogent Communications, severed ties with its Russian customers to prevent its networks from being used for propaganda or cyberattacks targeting 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 almost completely shut down by President Vladimir Putin. On an even grander scale, these moves bring Russia one step closer to the day when its online networks will be largely inward-facing, their global connections weakened, if not cut off entirely.

“I’m very scared of this,” said Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society, which champions digital freedoms in Russia. “I would like to tell people all over the world that if you turn off the Internet in Russia, it means cutting off 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 no Internet, everyone in Russia will only listen to propaganda.

Internet censorship technology in Russia, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly advanced, said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who wrote “The Red Web,” a book on the Internet there. People are increasingly relying on VPNs to access blocked websites by accessing hotspots outside Russia, he said, but there is a risk that even these will be blocked by the government.

“For the Russians it’s very dramatic and it’s very fast,” Soldatov said. “Which means people are not just trying to adapt, but to fight back.”

Autocrats in several countries have sought to better control what their citizens see and do online, while seeking to insulate them from outside ideas. Iran went unplugged from the global internet for a week in 2019 as the government battled internal unrest. For years, China has trapped its citizens behind a “great firewall” of aggressive surveillance and censorship.

But just two weeks ago, Russia’s internet was relatively free and integrated into the wider online world, allowing civil society to organise, opposition figures to deliver their messages and ordinary Russians to easy access to other news sources at a time when Putin was strangling his country’s free newspapers and radio stations.

Just last year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now in prison, took to YouTube to deliver a devastating expose, titled “Putin’s Palace,” about his lavish lifestyle. More recently, news from Ukraine – including disturbing images of attacks on civilians and dead Russian soldiers – has been pouring in on social media and online news sources, including from news sites. Ukrainians.

Patrick Boehler, head of digital strategy at Radio Free Europe, said data from CrowdTangle showed independent Russian-language reporting around the world was shared significantly more times on social media than public media reporting. He said that once the Kremlin lost control of the narrative, it would have been difficult to regain it.

Now the last independent journalistic outposts have disappeared and internet options are increasingly restricted by a combination of forces – all spurred by the war in Ukraine but coming from both inside and outside the Russia.

On March 4, Russia seized Europe’s largest nuclear power plant after fighting sparked a fire and Vladimir Putin called for a “normalization” of global relations. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The interior forces came from Roskomnadzor, the Russian censor, who announced Friday his intention to block Facebook, already strangled 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 sent similar letters to TikTok and Google, the owner of YouTube. Twitter has also confirmed that its service is restricted for certain people in Russia.

Government censors 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 due to a new law that could result in up to 15 years in prison for publishing what government officials say is fake news on the war.

At the same time, Western companies are increasingly reconsidering their business ties with Russia, in some cases choosing to cut services there. Microsoft said Friday it was “stopping many aspects” of its business in Russia to comply with US, UK and European Union sanctions. Netscout, a Connecticut-based software provider, said it would suspend all support and service to Russian companies in accordance with the sanctions.

Ukraine’s digital transformation minister Mykhailo Fedorov first pressured popular consumer companies like Apple, Facebook and Google to pull their services from Russia. Now he’s turned his attention to companies that power the internet itself.

On Friday, Fedorov tweeted that he had sent a letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos calling on Amazon to stop providing cloud services in Russia. He sent a similar letter to Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare, an internet services company specializing in protecting sites against online attacks. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“Cloudflare shouldn’t protect Russian web resources while their tanks and missiles attack our kindergartens,” he said in a tweet earlier this week.

Cogent’s decision alone shattered a piece of the internet’s vaunted “backbone” – the most important structural element in keeping global data flowing. “A backbone operator 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 post.

Cogent’s decision to sever ties with Russian customers began to take effect on Friday and was to take place over several days, to allow some customers to find alternative sources, the company said.

But the company was blunt in its letters to Russian customers, writing: “In light of the unwarranted and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Cogent is terminating all of your services effective 5pm GMT on March 4, 2022. The economic sanctions put in place due to the invasion and the increasingly uncertain security situation make it impossible for Cogent to continue to provide service to you.

Cogent chief executive Dave Schaeffer said the company does not want to prevent ordinary Russians from accessing the internet, but wants to prevent the Russian government from using Cogent’s networks to launch cyberattacks or spread propaganda targeting Ukraine in wartime.

“Our goal is not to hurt anyone. It’s just to not allow the Russian government to have another tool in its war chest,” he said.

Russia itself seems to be trying to find a balance between appeasing its own people and hitting back at American tech companies. The country’s blocking of Facebook did not extend to WhatsApp and Instagram, two services owned by the same parent company, Meta, which are far more popular with Russians. Instagram is used by celebrities, influencers and members of the Russian elite. WhatsApp is widely used for calls and daily communication.

Telegram, which was founded by Russian entrepreneurs who have since moved its headquarters out of the country, is also protected so far. He can gain protection by being a primary source of information for all parties. The company did not cut the government’s RT channel or its other propaganda sources. Opposition content, as well as content from Ukrainians seeking to influence opinion in Russia, remains available on Telegram.

The Russian government has been steadily pushing for more control over the internet for years, including passing laws allowing Roskomnadzor to shut down the national internet and gain more control over web architecture. The government has also forced media organizations that obtain funding from outside the country to call themselves “foreign agents” and, informally, state organizations have bought out most independent media outlets.

Russians say it is still possible to find factual, independent sources of information in the country – mainly through the internet and social media – but this is a challenge at a time when people have more and more struggling to navigate an economy ravaged 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 published.

“You have to be a sophisticated information consumer to find credible information,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. “Getting to a different view of the Kremlin takes extra effort.”

But the stakes go beyond news and information – even at this very busy and sensitive time.

Ukrainian officials have pressured US internet companies to cut services from Russia and also asked ICANN, the California-based nonprofit organization that oversees aspects of internet functionality in the world, to suspend the main Russian Internet domain, .ru.

ICANN rejected the request on Wednesday, but other possible forms of disconnection loom as ongoing risks as the war escalates, along with global sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression.

Runa Sandvik, security consultant and developer of the Tor project to evade censorship, said the use of Tor is on the rise and many Russians are adept at using it and VPNs and sharing news. elsewhere in small groups.

But she said the direction things were taking was alarming.

“We’re heading to the point where Russia has the same internet environment as China,” Sandvik said.

Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.