Russia ramps up internet censorship amid Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are pictured as they meet in Beijing, on February 4, 2022.

Alexey Druzhinin | AFP | Getty Images

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, Moscow has sought to tighten its grip on the domestic internet, cutting off apps made by American tech giants, even as other companies withdrew their own services from the country.

Analysts told CNBC that a move to emulate the Internet as it exists in China – perhaps the most restrictive online environment anywhere – remains elusive, and Russian citizens are still able to bypass controls in the system.

Over the past few years, companies such as Meta, Google and Facebook owner Twitter have worked in a turbulent environment in Russia.

They have faced pressure from the government to remove content the Kremlin considers unfavorable. The Washington Post reported this month that Russian agents threatened to jail a Google executive unless the company removed an app that angered President Vladimir Putin. The companies lived under the threat of suffocation in their services.

While the Internet in Russia is gradually becoming more controlled, citizens can still access those global services, making them portals for information other than state-backed media or pro-Kremlin sources.

But the war with Ukraine has pushed the American tech giants into conflict again, with Putin increasingly wanting more control over information.

Instagram is now blocked in Russia after parent company Meta allowed users in some countries to call for violence against the Russian president and the military in the context of the invasion of Ukraine. Facebook was banned in Russia last week after it imposed restrictions on government-backed news outlets. Access to Twitter is severely restricted.

These incidents highlight how big tech companies must balance their pursuit of a large market like Russia with the growing demands for censorship.

“For Western tech companies, they made a strategic decision at the beginning of the conflict to support Ukraine. This puts them on a collision course with the Russian government,” Abishor Prakash, co-founder of the Center for Future Innovation, told CNBC. . He added that companies like Meta “choose politics over profits”.

Neither the Russian Foreign Ministry nor Internet and media watchdog Roskomnadzor responded to a request for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Russia cannot do this overnight.

The country’s massive censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, has evolved over two decades and is constantly being refined.

Even virtual private networks, services that can hide users’ locations and identities in order to help them bypass a firewall, are hard to come by for ordinary Chinese.

While Russia’s increased internet controls are likely to accelerate this push toward a differentiated internet, the country is far from creating anything close to the technical capability behind China’s restrictions.

said Charlie Smith, founder of GreatFire.org, an organization that monitors censorship in China.

The Chinese system allows “internet censors and internet controllers more flexibility to monitor traffic, and turn off geographies, including down to the block level,” said Paul Triulo, senior vice president of China and technology policy leader at strategic consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group. . in cities, and be very specific about them targeting offending traffic or users.”

He added that this is something Russia cannot repeat.

Holes in the Russian firewall

It is difficult for Chinese citizens to get around Beijing’s strict controls on the Internet. The government has They are regularly restricted to VPN apps, which are the best option for evading the Great Firewall.

But the Russians managed to evade the Kremlin’s attempts to censor the Internet. VPNs saw an increase in downloads from Russia.

Meanwhile, Twitter launched a version of its website Tora service that encrypts Internet traffic to help mask the identity of users and prevent them from being monitored.

“It seems that Putin misjudged the level of technical knowledge of his citizens and their willingness to look for solutions to continue accessing unofficial information, many new tools and services, as well as solutions and channels that have emerged over the past five years,” said Triulo of the Albright Stonebridge Group. People who really want to maintain access to external information channels.

Will Chinese companies benefit?

As American and European companies Suspending business in Russia, Chinese tech companies can look to capitalize on this. Many of them, from Alibaba to smartphone maker Realme, already have businesses there.

So far, Chinese companies have been silent on the issue of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Beijing has refused to describe Russia’s war on Ukraine as an “invasion” and has not joined in the sanctions of the United States, the European Union, Japan and other countries against Moscow.

So it is a difficult road for Chinese companies.

“So far there doesn’t seem to be any guidance from China’s central authorities on how companies should deal with sanctions or export controls, so companies with a large footprint outside China are likely to be reluctant to bypass restrictions,” Triollo said.

“They will be very careful in identifying Beijing’s desires here, balancing how they handle requests from old and new Russian customers, and gauging the risks to their broader operations to continue cooperating with sanctioned end-user organizations.”

According to Prakash, the Chinese are likely to take their steps depending on the dialect emanating from Beijing.

“If Beijing continues to tacitly support Moscow, Chinese technology companies will have many opportunities. The biggest opportunity for these companies is to bridge the gap created by Western companies when they exited Russia,” he said. “The ability of these companies to grow their footprint and revenue in Russia is enormous.”