Russian citizens, unlike their Chinese counterparts, have been able to access US technology platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, despite their exposure to censorship and restrictions – a hallmark of the Chinese internet model.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has increasingly isolated the country in recent days, could spell the death knell for its worldwide web presence.
On Friday, as sanctions against Russia tightened and fighting continued in Ukraine, the Russian government said it had decided to block Facebook, citing the social network’s moves in recent days to impose restrictions on Russian-controlled media.
While Facebook is by no means the largest platform in the country, its ban may be a symbolic move to signal that President Vladimir Putin’s government is willing to go after global big names if they don’t stick to the party line. (Instagram and WhatsApp, which are most popular in Russia and also owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, are not blocked.) Already, the country’s main communications agency, Rozkomnadzor, is putting pressure on it google (Google) About what it calls “erroneous” information, has reportedly been tied up Twitter (TWTR) like that. Other platforms choose to stop operations on their own.
A break with Russia may not pose an existential threat to Western tech platforms, some of which have an audience in the billions. But these moves have major implications for Russians’ ability to access information and express themselves freely. On a more fundamental level, it could also accelerate the fragmentation of the global Internet as we know it.
digital iron curtain
Many of Russia’s recent restrictions on Western technology platforms stem from Russia’s “sovereign internet” law in 2019 that allows Roskomnadzor to control more tightly the country’s internet access and potentially sever its online links with the rest of the world altogether.
A law passed by Putin’s government on Friday intensifies hostility to Western services, making the publication of “false” information about the invasion of Ukraine a prison sentence of up to 15 years, according to the Protection Committee. journalists. The law prompted several news outlets, including CNN, to suspend their coverage from within Russia. TikTok also cited the new legal environment in announcing its decision to block new uploads and live broadcasts on its platform in Russia.
Other tech companies previously retreated from Russia amid the conflict in Ukraine. Apple, Microsoft and Intel have halted all sales and services prohibited in the country, while Google, Twitter and Netflix (NFLX)And the spotify (spot) And Meta have banned or restricted Russian state-run media and, in some cases, stopped advertising in the country entirely. One of the world’s largest internet traffic hosts, Cogent Communications, is said to have started cutting some Russian service providers from its network on Friday.
It’s a perfect storm that could push Russia to finally isolate its population from the rest of the global internet, just as China has already done.
“The crisis is certainly a hot spot, and potentially a turning point, for Western platforms operating in Russia,” Jessica Brandt, director of policy for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told CNN Business. “Moscow will undoubtedly continue to pressure platforms to remove spam, using all the leverage at its disposal. If companies comply, the public reaction elsewhere in the world will be severe,” she added.
The term used to refer to the two countries’ censors is also similar – China has its Great Firewall, and Russia has been dubbed the Digital Iron Curtain. But while there are many similarities between the two, there are also some key differences that call into question Russia’s ability to maintain its own independent digital ecosystem.
Can the Internet in Russia survive without Western technology?
While China has spent decades building up its far-reaching oversight capabilities and has always blocked most Western technology platforms from operating in the country, Russia is trying to make this shift while fighting a war. Russia’s ability to deploy the same level of technology as China is questionable, whether that is making access to Western platforms completely infeasible or even censoring certain content and topics in real time as the Chinese government often does.
“I think one of the subtle differences between Russia and China is that China has the technical capability — their Great Firewall is very sophisticated and Russia doesn’t have much of that,” said Xiaomeng Lu, director of the Eurasia Geotechnology Practice. Group. “As much as they are [Russia] You want to do a complete and comprehensive handicap, I think technically there are some challenges.”
Unlike in China, millions of people in Russia are accustomed to accessing global technology platforms, and isolating them completely from those platforms is a move the Russian government under Putin has so far refrained from taking. But that is rapidly changing as the war and the resulting Western sanctions continue to escalate.
“I think shutting it down completely could lead to some kind of political backlash towards the government,” Lu said. However, she adds, “this kind of fear is lost by the fear of the long-term survival of the system.”
Russia’s dependence on foreign technology has been all too visible as foreign companies cut ties in response to Western sanctions. Texas-based Saber and its European counterpart Amadeus kicked Russia’s largest airline, Aeroflot, from their global ticketing and reservation systems last week. The country’s central bank also announced that Apple Pay and Google Pay will not support the cards of many Russian banks.
Russia already has alternatives to global technology platforms such as the Yandex search engine and the social network VK, which has tens of millions of users. But Lu says it is not a “vibrant ecosystem like China” which is home to many tech giants including Tencent (TCEHY)And the Ali Baba (Baba) And the Weibo (WB) that rival their counterparts in Silicon Valley.
Russian platforms also face their own collateral damage from the invasion of Ukraine and the resulting Western sanctions. Yandex warned last week that a stock market crash due to sanctions could prevent it from repaying its debts, and Vladimir Kirienko, CEO of VK’s parent company, is among the individuals sanctioned by the US government. On Monday, the Dutch investment firm Prosus announced that it was canceling its investment in VK – worth about $700 million – and asked its two directors on the company’s board of directors to resign.
“The Russian people will lose tremendously”
While the Russian government appears more than willing to push Western tech platforms from its digital frontiers, the same cannot be said of the Russian people.
“The Russian government will benefit from the exit of the big tech companies,” Brandt said. “It is the Russian people who will lose the most if they are denied access to news and non-governmental information and are deprived of the means to organize.”
There are already indications that the Russians are looking for ways to avoid blocking the Internet. Five of the top 10 downloaded apps in the country last week were Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps that allow users to create a more secure internet connection. Downloads of the most popular VPN apps during that period collectively rose more than 1,300%, according to app tracking platform Sensor Tower.
One way or another, the digital Iron Curtain seems to be falling.
Lu admits it’s hard to predict exactly how quickly the Russian Internet will completely cut off from the world, but the latest development suggests it could happen in “weeks or maybe even days”.