Long before waging war on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin was working to make Russia’s internet a powerful tool of surveillance and social control akin to China’s so-called Great Firewall.
So when Western tech companies began cutting ties with Russia following its invasion, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov was alarmed. He’d spent years exposing Russian censorship and feared that well-intentioned efforts to aid Ukraine would instead help Putin isolate Russians from the free flow of information, aiding the Kremlin’s propaganda war.
Look, guys the only space the Russians have to talk about Ukraine. and what is going on in Russia. is Facebook, Soldatov, now exiled in London, wrote on Facebook in the war’s first week. You cannot just, like, kill our access.
Facebook didn’t, although the Kremlin soon picked up that baton, throttling both Facebook and Twitter so badly they are effectively unreachable on the Russian internet. Putin has also blocked access to both Western media and independent news sites in the country, and a new law criminalises spreading information that contradicts the government’s line. On Friday, the Kremlin said it would also restrict access to Instagram.
Yet the Kremlin’s latest censorship efforts have also revealed serious shortcomings in the government’s bigger plans to straightjacket the internet. Any Russian with a modicum of tech smarts can circumvent Kremlin efforts to starve Russians of fact.
That puts providers of internet bandwidth and associated services sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight in a tough spot. On one side, they face public pressure to punish the Russian state and economic reasons to limit services at a time when bills might well go unpaid. On the other, they’re wary of helping stifle a free flow of information that can counter Kremlin disinformation for instance, the state’s claim that Russia’s military is heroically liberating Ukraine from fascists.
Amazon Web Services continues to operate in Russia, although it says it’s not taking on any new customers. Both Cloudflare, which helps shield websites from denial-of-service attacks and malware, and Akamai, which boosts site performance by putting internet content closer to its audience, also continue to serve their Russian customers, with exceptions including cutting off state-owned companies and firms under sanctions.
Microsoft, by contrast, hasn’t said whether it will halt its cloud services in the country, although it has suspended all new sales of products and services.
US-based Cogent, which provides a major backbone for internet traffic, has cut direct connections inside Russia but left open the pipes through subsidiaries of Russian network providers at exchanges physically outside the country. Another major US backbone provider, Lumen, has done the same.
We have no desire to cut off Russian individuals and think that an open internet is critical to the world, Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer said in an interview. Direct connections to servers inside Russia, he said, could potentially “be used for offensive cyber efforts by the Russian government.
He said Cogent is providing Ukrainian customers free service during the conflict.
Schaeffer said these moves might impair internet video in Russia but will leave plenty of bandwidth for smaller files.
Other major backbone providers in Europe and Asia also continue to serve Russia, a net importer of bandwidth, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for the network management firm Kentik.
Cloudflare continues to operate four data centres in Russia even though Russian authorities ordered government websites to drop foreign-owned hosting providers as of Friday. In a March 7 blog post the company said it had determined Russia needs more Internet access, not less.
Under a 2019 sovereign internet law, Russia is supposed to be able to operate its internet independent of the rest of the world. In practice, that has brought Russia closer to the kind of intensive internet monitoring and control practised by China and Iran.
Its telecommunications oversight agency, Rozkomnadzor, successfully tested the system at scale a year ago when it throttled access to Twitter. It uses hundreds of so-called middleboxes router-like devices run and remotely controlled by bureaucrats that can block individual websites and services installed by law at all internet providers inside Russia.
But the system, which also lets the FSB security service spy on Russian citizens, is a relative sieve compared to China’s Great Firewall. Andrew Sullivan, president of the nonprofit Internet Society, said there’s no evidence it has the ability to successfully disconnect Russia from the wider internet.
When it comes to censorship, the only ones who can really do it are the Chinese, said Serge Droze, a senior security engineer at Swiss-based Proton Technologies, which offers software for creating virtual private networks, or VPNs, a principal tool for circumventing state censorship.
ProtonVPN, which Droze says has been inventive in finding ways to circumvent Russian blocking, reports clocking 10 times as many daily signups than before the war.
Russian authorities are also having some success blocking the privacy-protecting Tor browser, which like VPNs lets users visit content at special .onion sites on the so-called dark web, researchers say. Twitter just created a Tor site; other outlets such as The New York Times also have them.
The Kremlin has not, however, blocked the popular Telegram messaging app.
(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
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