(Berlin) – Several leading foreign technology companies have pulled out of Russia or suspended operations in the past two weeks since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, exacerbating the risk of alienating the country’s residents from the global internet.
The tech companies’ pullout comes at a time when Russian authorities have stepped up their use of “sovereign internet” technology to block access to many independent media and social media platforms. This technology could potentially enable Russia to place the entire country in digital isolation. Foreign technology companies and governments should carefully assess how their actions may contribute to the eradication of remaining online freedoms in Russia and take steps to ease undue restrictions on the basis of their human rights responsibilities and obligations.
“Millions of Russians rely on the Internet for information on current affairs and communication with the outside world amid unprecedented government censorship,” said Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign technology companies should strive to provide services and products to people in Russia to help them access the Internet and mitigate the risks of isolation.”
The withdrawals come as Russian authorities have launched a fierce crackdown on independent war reporting and any form of public criticism, including online, of Russia’s military offensive on Ukraine.
After President Vladimir Putin declared a “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries imposed an unprecedented set of sanctions on Russia – sectoral and individual – aimed at getting the authorities to stop the military attack on Ukraine.
On February 29, the Ukrainian government asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to cut off Russia’s connection to the global Internet. However, ICANN rejected the request as “not technically feasible nor within its mission”.
US sanctions that ban transactions with Russian authorities and various individuals affect technology companies, and EU sanctions specifically address dual-use technology and cutting edge technologies. However, it is not clear to what extent these sanctions allow companies to continue to introduce modern communication technologies. This uncertainty appears to have led to differences in reactions from foreign technology companies operating in Russia.
Some companies have suspended certain aspects of their business in Russia that they concluded were subject to sanctions after consulting with governments and civil society.
Many foreign companies, ranging from Software developers As for the major spine service providers, they have suspended their operations in Russia completely, in some cases citing penalties as the main or primary reason. Other companies suspended certain aspects of their operations under sanctions, but “in addition” announced that they would leave the Russian market, apparently on their own initiative.
Since February 24, the Russian authorities have banned several Russian and foreign media outlets, including the Echo of Moscow, Dozhd, Meduza, and the BBC Russian Service, due to their coverage of the war in Ukraine.
On March 4, Russian authorities completely banned access to Facebook and Twitter for “discrimination against Russian media” because they had imposed stickers and restricted access to official accounts of Russian state and pro-Kremlin outlets in Europe. On March 11, the authorities announced that they were banning Instagram entirely in Russia, to come into effect on March 14, in response to a temporary exception by parent company Meta, to its hate speech policy for users in Ukraine for posts containing calls for violence against the Russian armed forces that indicate to the war in Ukraine.
These bans may have been facilitated by deep packet inspection technology that the Russian government required service providers to install in their networks under the 2019 Sovereign Internet Act. This technology allows Russia to filter out unwanted content directly.
In addition to blocking platforms, this law created a legal framework for centralized state management of the Internet within Russia’s borders, restricting Internet traffic to and from the state, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting the public from “threats to the security, safety, and sustainability” of the Internet in Russia.
The blocking of websites and the potential disruption of the global internet contravene Russia’s obligations to protect and support freedom of expression and access to information under international human rights law.
On March 9, Russian non-governmental digital rights group Roskomsvoboda urged foreign IT companies to continue providing services in Russia, noting that the companies’ withdrawal might, among other things, serve as a “appropriate excuse for Russian authorities” to interpret these actions as a “threat.” And the launch of the “Sovereign Internet” law.
On March 7, the Russian Ministry of Digitalization said that it does not plan to isolate the Russian part of the Internet. The day after the ministry’s statement, its website, along with several other official websites, appeared to have been hacked and displayed an anti-war poster for about an hour. The government may consider that such unprecedented cyber attacks, including on Russian government websites, also fall under the definition of “threats” to the Internet in Russia under the “Sovereign Internet” law.
The exit of foreign technology companies, including foreign registrars, and entities that manage domain names and IP addresses, has already prompted the Coordination Center for National Top-Level Domains .RU and .PФ to recommend that administrators of these domains switch to registrars and hosting based in Russia. While these measures may allow these sites to continue operating, they also increase the Russian government’s control over the Internet’s infrastructure.
In a letter dated March 10, 40 rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged the Biden administration in the United States and like-minded governments seeking to punish Russia and its allies for its abuses in Ukraine to allow companies to provide services, software, and hardware. Incident of personal communication over the Internet.
In the meantime, companies must live up to their human rights responsibilities and take steps to mitigate the negative human rights impacts of any decisions they make beyond what government sanctions require.
“Russian civil society has been holding back its government’s efforts to censor and isolate the internet for years,” Williamson said. “Foreign tech companies and governments should carefully assess how their actions might benefit the Kremlin by contributing to the further isolation of Russian Internet users.”