A new iron curtain descends on the Internet in Russia

Moscow censors banned Facebook on Friday and throttled other American social networking services. Microsoft banned sales to Russians, following a similar move by Apple. And a leading US Internet data conduit, Cogent Communications, has cut ties with its Russian clients to prevent its networks from being used for propaganda or cyberattacks targeting beleaguered Ukrainians.

Taken together, these and other events will likely make it more difficult for Russians to track the horrors unfolding in Ukraine at a time when Russia’s own independent media has been almost completely shut down by President Vladimir Putin. On an even larger scale, these moves bring Russia closer to the day when its online networks largely face inward, its global connections weakened, if not cut off altogether.

“I am 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, this means that 140 million people will be deprived of 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.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s Internet censorship technology is becoming increasingly advanced, said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and author of “The Red Web,” a book on the Internet there. People are increasingly relying on VPNs to access blocked websites when accessing hotspots outside of Russia, he said, but there’s a risk the government will block even those.

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

Autocrats in various nations have worked to gain more control over what their citizens see and do online, while also seeking to insulate them from outside ideas. Iran was cut off 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 monitoring and censorship.

But even two weeks ago, the Internet in Russia was comparatively free and integrated into the larger online world, allowing civil society to organize, opposition figures to get their messages out, and ordinary Russians to get quick access to alternative news sources in an era when Putin was strangling his country’s free newspapers and broadcasters.

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

Patrick Boehler, director of digital strategy at Radio Free Europe, said the CrowdTangle data showed that independent news in Russian around the world was shared far more times on social media than stories from state media. He said that once the Kremlin lost control of the narrative, it would have been difficult to get it back.

Now, the last independent journalistic outposts are gone, and internet options are increasingly restricted through a combination of forces, all fueled by the war in Ukraine but coming from both inside and outside Russia.

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

The insider forces came from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s censor, which on Friday announced plans to block Facebook, which had already been throttled for several days. In a post on the popular social networking site Telegram, the agency accused Facebook of blocking the free flow of information to Russia after it took steps to check state media and restrict it in Europe. Roskomnadzor said it sent similar letters to TikTok and Google, the owner of YouTube. Twitter has also confirmed that its service is restricted for some 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 organizations said they would suspend reporting in Russia because of a new law that could result in 15 years in prison for publishing what government officials consider to be false news about the war.

At the same time, Western companies are increasingly rethinking their business ties with Russia, in some cases choosing to cut off services there. Microsoft said on Friday that it was “halting many aspects” of its business in Russia to comply with sanctions from the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Netscout, a Connecticut-based software provider, announced that it would suspend all support and services 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 withdraw services from Russia. He has now focused his attention on the companies that make the Internet work.

On Friday, Fedorov tweeted that he sent a letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos asking 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 that specializes in protecting sites from online attacks. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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

Cogent’s move alone broke a part of the Internet’s vaunted “backbone,” the most important structural element in keeping global data flowing. “A major 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 post.

Cogent’s move to cut ties with Russian customers began to take effect on Friday and would last for several days, to allow some customers to find alternative sources, the company said.

But the company was blunt in its letters to its Russian customers, writing: “In light of the unwarranted and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Cogent will terminate all of its services from 5pm GMT on March 4, 2022. The sanctions The economic constraints set in place as a result of the invasion and the increasingly uncertain security situation make it impossible for Cogent to continue serving them.”

Cogent Chief Executive Dave Schaeffer said the company did not want to keep ordinary Russians off the Internet, but it did want to prevent the Russian government from using Cogent’s networks to launch cyberattacks or deliver propaganda aimed at Ukraine in times of crisis. war.

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

Russia itself seems to be trying to strike a balance between appeasing its own people and retaliating against 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, that are much 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.

Also protected until now has been Telegram, which was founded by Russian businessmen who have since moved their headquarters out of the country. You can gain protection by being a primary source of information for all parties. The company has not cut off the government’s RT channel or its other sources of propaganda. Opposition content, as well as content from Ukrainians seeking to influence opinion in Russia, continues to be available on Telegram.

The Russian government has moved steadily to exert more control over the internet for years, including enacting laws allowing Roskomnadzor to cut off the home internet and have more control over web architecture. The government also forced media organizations that raise funds from outside the country to label themselves as “foreign agents,” and informally, state organizations bought most independent media channels.

Russians say it’s still possible to find independent, factual sources of information within the country, mainly due to the internet and social media, but it’s a challenge at a time when people are increasingly struggling to navigate an economy ravaged by sanctions and government crackdowns on freedom of expression. . 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. “Accessing from a different point of view than the Kremlin requires an additional effort.”

But the stakes go beyond news and information, even at this sensitive and tense time.

Ukrainian officials have been pressuring American Internet companies to cut off services from Russia and have also asked ICANN, the California-based nonprofit organization that oversees aspects of Internet functionality around the world, to suspend the main Russian Internet domain, .ru.

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

Runa Sandvik, a security consultant and developer of the Tor Censorship Bypass Project, said the use of Tor had increased and that many Russians were adept at using it and VPNs and sharing news from elsewhere in small groups.

But he said the direction things are headed is alarming.

“We are getting close to the point where Russia has the same internet environment as China,” Sandvik said.

Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.