Human rights

Russia: With the withdrawal of technology companies, the Internet is increasingly isolated

(Berlin) – Several major foreign tech companies have pulled out of Russia or suspended operations in the two weeks since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, heightening the risk of global internet isolation for residents of the country.

The tech company pullouts come at a time when Russian authorities have doubled down on the use of their “sovereign internet” technology to block access to many independent media outlets and social media platforms. Such technology potentially allows Russia to place the entire country in digital isolation. Technology companies and foreign governments should carefully assess how their actions can contribute to the eradication of remaining online freedoms in Russia and take steps to mitigate undue restrictions based on their human rights responsibilities and obligations. .

“Millions of Russians rely on the Internet for news and communication with the outside world amid unprecedented government censorship,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign tech companies should seek to provide services and products to people in Russia to help them access the internet and mitigate the risk of isolation.”

The withdrawals come at a time of brutal crackdown by Russian authorities on independent war reporting and any form of public criticism, including online, of the Russian military offensive against Ukraine.

After President Vladimir Putin announced “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 series of sanctions on the Russia – both sectoral and individual – designed to push the authorities to cease the military offensive against Ukraine.

On February 29, the Ukrainian government asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to cut Russia off from the global Internet. ICANN, however, rejected the request as “not technically feasible or within its mission”.

US sanctions that prohibit transactions with Russian authorities and various individuals affect tech companies, and EU sanctions relate specifically to dual-use and advanced technologies. However, it is not known to what extent these sanctions allow companies to continue to provide modern communication technologies. This uncertainty seems to have caused differences in the responses of foreign technology companies operating in Russia.

Some companies have suspended certain aspects of their activities in Russia which, after consulting with governments and civil society, have concluded that they fall under sanctions.

Several foreign companies, ranging from software developers to major backbone providers, have suspended operations in Russia entirely, in some cases citing sanctions as a major or primary reason. Other companies have suspended aspects of their operations under sanctions, but have “additionally” announced that they are leaving the Russian market, apparently on their own initiative.

Since February 24, Russian authorities have blocked numerous Russian and foreign media, including Echo of Moscow, Dozhd, Meduza and BBC Russian Service for their coverage of the war in Ukraine.

On March 4, Russian authorities completely blocked access to Facebook and Twitter for “discriminating against Russian media” because they imposed labels and restricted access to official Russian and pro-Russian media accounts. Kremlin in Europe. On March 11, authorities announced they were completely blocking Instagram in Russia, to take effect on March 14, in response to a temporary exception from its parent company, Meta, to its policy of inciting hatred towards users. in Ukraine for posts containing calls for violence against the Russian armed forces that refer to the war in Ukraine.

These blocks could have been facilitated by the deep packet inspection technology that the Russian government required service providers to install in their networks with the 2019 “sovereign internet” law. This technology allows Russia to filter unwanted content directly.

In addition to blocking the 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 country, ostensibly in an effort to protect the public against “threats to the security, integrity, and sustainability” of the internet in Russia.

Website blockages and potential global internet shutdown run counter to Russia’s obligations to protect and uphold freedom of expression and access to information under international human rights law of man.

On March 9, Russia’s leading non-governmental digital rights group, Roskomsvoboda, urged foreign IT companies to continue providing services in Russia, noting that the companies’ withdrawal could, among other things, serve as a “convenient pretext for Russian authorities” to interpret these actions as a “threat” and trigger the “sovereign internet” law.

On March 7, Russia’s digitization ministry said it had no plans to isolate the Russian segment of the Internet. The day after the ministry’s statement, its own 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 such unprecedented cyberattacks, including on Russian government sites, to 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, entities managing domain names and IP addresses, has already prompted the .RU and .PФ Country Top Level Domain Coordination Center to recommend administrators from these domains to registrars and hosting. in Russia. While these measures may allow these sites to continue operating, they also increase Russian government control over internet infrastructure.

In a March 10 letter, 40 human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged the Biden administration in the United States and like-minded governments seeking to sanction Russia and its allies for its abuses in Ukraine to authorize companies to provide services, software and hardware. incident to personal communications on the Internet.

In the meantime, companies must live up to their human rights responsibilities and take steps to mitigate the negative human rights consequences of any decision they make to go beyond what is required by government sanctions. .

“Russian civil society has pushed back against 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 work in the Kremlin’s favor by contributing to the increased isolation of Russian internet users.”