Russia pulls the Internet’s Iron Curtain, but loopholes remain

Russia is dropping a digital iron curtain on its population, creating a new and large rift in the global internet — but there are still huge gaps in President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cut the country off from online information accessible in most parts of the world.

A little more than two weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin on Friday intensified its war on outside information about the invasion, saying it would start blocking Instagram. The parent company of the photo-sharing app, Meta Platforms, has been called company ,

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“Extremist organization” for allowing violent statements about the invasion of Russian forces.

Last week, Russia began restricting access to Twitter company

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and dead‘s

Facebook. He also passed a law threatening prison terms for spreading what authorities describe as false information about the Russian armed forces – effectively silencing many independent media outlets within the country.

At the same time, more and more Western companies are withdrawing some digital services from Russia under the pressure of Western sanctions. Netflix Inc. To suspend the broadcasting service in the country and Alphabet company

Google said its App Store for Android phones will no longer allow paid apps or app subscriptions to be sold in the country – although it does keep its free services available for now.

It is too early to say how permanent the restrictions will be. But legal experts and digital activists say it already represents a major new rupture in global internet connections, which have been slowly disintegrating under various pressures – what experts call “splinternet”.

China has a massive censorship and filtering system sometimes called the “Great Firewall”. Iran blocks a large number of foreign media and social media sites. Turkey and other countries have tried to force social media companies to remove content they find objectionable through strict local laws.

In Western countries, too, new laws requiring companies to store data locally and rules to remove certain types of content have created digital boundaries that did not exist before.

“The war has taken and catalyzed existing paths,” said Daphne Keeler, a former general counsel for Google, who now directs the platform regulation program at Stanford University’s Center for Electronic Policy. “Russia is intentionally isolating itself in some really dramatic ways.”

Autocratic governments try to restrict internet access for as long as it has been around. Before the invasion, Russia sent hundreds of thousands of takedown requests to companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter, according to the companies’ transparency reports. In some cases, companies resist orders, particularly when they believe there are issues with free speech, employees say. But reports show that in many cases they are complying.

However, ordinary Russians had relatively wide access to the same sites and information available elsewhere. The Russian crackdown has – so far at least – been compared to a few digital media platforms that are very popular in Russia, including the social media and chat app of Telegram Group Inc. Google’s YouTube video service. Both continue to carry Russian-language content that goes against the Kremlin line, although Telegram also has a swathe of pro-Kremlin propaganda.

Ivan Kolpakov, editor-in-chief of Medusa, in 2019.


Photo:

Gregory Stein/Shutterstock

Meduza, an independent Russian-language publication whose website has been blocked by the Kremlin, is still posting videos on YouTube, including a video of a bombing in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol that was available in Russia as of Friday evening. It also posts regular updates for its Telegram channel, which has more than 1 million subscribers and was available in Russia as of Friday, according to Ivan Kolpakov, editor-in-chief and co-founder.

Some digital media experts say Russia may have dispensed with these tools because they are more popular in Russia than Facebook or Twitter — which follow Russia’s local social network, VK. Telegram says that between 7% and 8% of its users are in Russia, which employs more than 40 million people. Blocking it could cause a backlash – or lead to wider use of other techniques to circumvent internet blackouts.

“It’s really hard for governments to censor the platforms where people get their daily dose of cute cats,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. That digital activists are more immune to government retaliation if they use a popular digital platform, because there will be public outcry to shut it down.

Google did not immediately comment on Meduza’s YouTube channel, but it has previously said it keeps its free services available in Russia “to provide access to information and worldviews.” A Telegram spokesperson said that the company evaluates government removal requests based on its values, and that “any requests from Russia related to political censorship or limitation of human rights will not and will not be considered.”

Some of the news outlets and social media platforms that the Kremlin has banned are finding their way to Russian audiences. More Russians are turning to circumvention tools like VPNs, VPNs, or even browser extensions designed to dodge bans.

Explosive damage in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on Friday.


Photo:

Miguel Lopes/Shutterstock

VPN access and use is widespread in Russia, despite government attempts to block it. The campaign triggered the launch of a digital cat-and-mouse game, with users searching for ones that authorities haven’t found or that have been completely banned.

After the Russian government blocked access to the website of Voice of America Russia, the US government-backed news service, the site last week received more than six times its usual traffic, about 40% of which came through tools like VPNs, according to Voice of America officials. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, very few people accessed VOA’s Russian service through these tools, Mr. Pace said.

“There has been a massive and rapid adoption of circumvention technology by the Russians because I think the Russian people understand what is going on here,” said Matthew Bays, director of digital strategy at Voice of America. “It is about an unprecedented attempt to control the free flow of information.”

Facebook, which is banned within Russia, sees about 40% of traffic to its Russian-language site coming through circumvention tools such as a VPN, according to people familiar with the matter.

“We haven’t seen a massive drop in our Facebook page,” said Alen Melatisuma, managing editor of VOA’s Eurasia division, despite the Kremlin’s ban on both VOA and Facebook.

Part of the reason for rapid adoption is that services like British Broadcasting Corp and VOA have directed audiences to download VPNs or the Tor Browser, allowing users to surf the web anonymously. The US government – through VOA’s sister organization, the Open Technology Fund – has sponsored two such free anti-censorship tools: NthLink, a virtual private network created by Advanced Circuiting Inc. Headquartered in Virginia, Psiphon Inc. It redirects and camouflaged user traffic through cloud service providers.

Psiphon’s daily user base in Russia has grown eight times since the start of the war, according to the company.

Prior to February 24, NthLink had only 800 daily users in Russia. By March 4, that number had swelled to 140,000. said Martin Chu, director of engineering for Advanced Circuiting Inc.

Mr. Kolpakov of Meduza said the popularity of the gimmick means his site still gets significant traffic from Russia. But he is preparing to do more to shut down the Russian Internet.

“We have saved the majority of our readers in Russia so far,” Mr. Kolpakov said. “At the moment things are looking good but it will be a long journey and it won’t be easy I guess.”

Ukrainian journalist Roman Sohan spoke about Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities, Thursday.


Photo:

The Voice of America

write to Sam Schechner at sam.schechner@wsj.com and Keach Hagey at keach.hagey@wsj.com

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