Advocates of an open, globally connected Internet long have worried that a major country or region would break away from the Web amid geopolitical strife, dashing hopes of a seamless network capable of uniting a fractious world.
Moscow’s censors on Friday banned Facebook and throttled other American social media services. Microsoft banned sales to Russians, following a similar move by Apple. And a leading American conduit of Internet data, Cogent Communications, severed ties with its Russian clients to prevent its networks from being used for propaganda or cyberattacks aimed at beleaguered Ukrainians.
Taken together, these and other events likely will make it harder for Russians to track the horrors unfolding in Ukraine at a time when Russia’s own independent media has been almost completely shut down by President Vladimir Putin. On an even larger scale, these moves bring Russia closer to the day when its online networks face largely inward, their global connections weakened, if not cut off entirely.
“I am very afraid of this,” said Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society, which advocates for digital freedoms in Russia. “I would like to convey to people all over the world that if you turn off the Internet in Russia, then this means cutting off 140 million people from at least some truthful information. As long as the Internet exists, people can find out the truth. There will be no Internet — all people in Russia will only listen to propaganda.”
Russia’s Internet censorship technology, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly advanced, said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who authored “The Red Web,” a book on the Internet there. People are increasingly relying on VPNs to access blocked websites by accessing connection points outside Russia, he said, but there’s a risk that even those will be blocked by the government.
“For the Russians, it’s very dramatic, and it’s very fast,” said Soldatov. “Which means people are not just trying to adjust but to fight back.”
Autocrats in several nations have worked to gain more control over what their citizens see and do online, while also seeking to isolate them from outside ideas. Iran unplugged from the global Internet for a week in 2019 while the government battled internal unrest. China for years has trapped its citizens behind a “Great Firewall” of aggressive monitoring and censorship.
But even two weeks ago, Russia’s Internet was comparatively free and integrated into the larger online world, allowing civil society to organize, opposition figures to deliver their messages and ordinary Russians to gain ready access to alternative sources of news in an era when Putin was strangling his nation’s free newspapers and broadcast stations.
Just last year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now in prison, used YouTube to help deliver a devastating exposé, called “Putin’s Palace,” about his lavish lifestyle. More recently, news from Ukraine — including disturbing images of attacks on civilians and dead Russian soldiers — flowed in on social media and online news sources, including from Ukrainian news sites.
Patrick Boehler, head of digital strategy at Radio Free Europe, said CrowdTangle data showed that independent news stories in the Russian language worldwide were getting shared many more times on social media than stories from state-run media. He said that once the Kremlin lost control of the narrative, it would have been hard to regain.
Now the last independent journalistic outposts are gone, and the Internet options are increasingly constricted through a combination of forces — all spurred by war in Ukraine but coming from both within and outside Russia.
The interior forces came from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s censor, which Friday announced plans to block Facebook, which already had been throttled for several days. In a post on the popular Telegram social media site, the agency accused Facebook of blocking the free flow of information to Russia after it took steps to fact-check state media and restrict it in Europe. Roskomnadzor said it sent similar letters to TikTok and Google, the owner of YouTube. Twitter has also confirmed that its service is being restricted for some people in Russia.
Government censors also blocked access to the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Deutsche Welle, as well as major Ukrainian websites. The BBC, CNN and other international news organizations said they were suspending reporting in Russia because of a new law that could result in 15 years of prison for publishing what government officials deem false news on the war.
At the same time, Western companies are increasingly reconsidering their business ties in Russia, in some cases opting to cut services there. Microsoft said Friday it was “stopping many aspects” of its business in Russia to comply with sanctions from the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. Netscout, a Connecticut-based software provider, announced it would suspend all support and services to Russian companies in accordance with sanctions.
Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, at first pressured popular consumer companies like Apple, Facebook and Google to withdraw services from Russia. Now he has turned his attention to the companies that make the Internet itself function.
On Friday, Fedorov tweeted that he sent a letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, calling on Amazon to stop providing cloud services in Russia. He sent a similar letter to Matthew Prince, the co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare, an Internet services company that specializes in protecting sites from online attacks. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Cloudflare should not protect Russian web-resources while their tanks and missiles attack our kindergartens,” he said in a tweet earlier this week.
The Cogent move by itself broke a piece of the Internet’s vaunted “backbone” — the most important structural element in keeping global data flowing. “A backbone carrier disconnecting its customers in a country the size of Russia is without precedent in the history of the Internet,” analyst Doug Madory of monitoring firm Kentik wrote in a blog.
The move by Cogent to sever ties with Russian customers began taking effect on Friday and was to roll out over several days, to allow some customers to find alternative sources, the company said.
But the company was blunt in letters to its Russian customers, writing, “In light of the unwarranted and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Cogent is terminating all of your services effective at 5 p.m. GMT on March 4, 2022. The economic sanctions put in place as a result of the invasion and the increasingly uncertain security situation make it impossible for Cogent to continue to provide you with service.”
Cogent chief executive Dave Schaeffer said the company did not want to keep ordinary Russians off the Internet but did want to prevent the Russian government from using Cogent’s networks to launch cyberattacks or deliver propaganda targeting Ukraine at a time of war.
“Our goal is not to hurt anyone. It’s just to not empower the Russian government to have another tool in their war chest,” he said.
Russia itself appears to be attempting to strike a balance between appeasing its own people and retaliating against U.S. tech companies. The country’s blocking of Facebook did not extend to WhatsApp and Instagram, two services owned by the same parent company, Meta, that are far more popular with Russians. Instagram is used by celebrities, influencers and members of the Russian elite. WhatsApp is widely used for calls and everyday communication.
Also protected so far has been Telegram, which was founded by Russian entrepreneurs who have since moved its headquarters out of the country. It may gain protection by being a leading source of information for all sides. The company has not cut off the government’s RT channel or its other propaganda sources. Opposition content, as well as content from Ukrainians seeking to influence opinion in Russia, remains available on Telegram.
The Russian government has been steadily moving to exert more control over the Internet for years, including enacting laws that allow Roskomnadzor to cut off the domestic Internet and have more control over Web architecture. The government has also compelled media organizations that get funding from outside the country to label themselves as “foreign agents,” and informally, state organizations have bought up most independent media channels.
Russians say that finding factual, independent information sources still is possible within the country — mainly because of the Internet and social media — but it’s a challenge at a time when people are increasingly struggling to navigate a sanctions-ravaged economy and government crackdowns on free speech. Several people in the country agreed to speak only if their names and other identifying information were not published.
“You have to be a sophisticated news consumer in order to find credible information,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. “Accessing different from the Kremlin’s point of view takes extra effort.”
But the stakes go beyond news and information — even at this highly charged, sensitive moment.
Ukrainian officials have been lobbying American Internet companies to cut off services from Russia and also asked ICANN, the California-based nonprofit that oversees aspects of Internet functionality worldwide, to suspend the main Russian Internet domain, .ru.
ICANN rejected the request on Wednesday, but other forms of possible disconnection loom as ongoing risks as the war intensifies along with global sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression.
Runa Sandvik, a security consultant and developer on the Tor Project for evading censorship, said that Tor usage was up and that many Russians were skilled at using it and VPNs and sharing news from elsewhere in small groups.
But she said the direction things were headed is alarming.
“We are moving toward the point where Russia is having the same Internet environment as China,” Sandvik said.
Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.