The Digital Iron Curtain: How Russia’s Internet Could Soon Start to Look a Lot Like China’s
By Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
Like many other things in the country, the Russian Internet has long straddled East and West.
Russian citizens, unlike their Chinese counterparts, were able to access US technology platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, despite being subject to censorship and restrictions – the defining feature of China’s internet model.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has been increasingly isolating the country in recent days, could also spell the end of its presence on the global web.
On Friday, as sanctions against Russia tightened and fighting in Ukraine continued to escalate, the Russian government said it had decided to block Facebook, citing steps taken by the social network in recent days to impose restrictions on Russian-controlled media.
Although Facebook is by no means the largest platform in the country, blocking it may be a symbolic measure to signal that President Vladimir Putin’s government is ready to go after big global names if they don’t toe the line. party. (Instagram and WhatsApp, which are more popular in Russia and also owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, have not yet been blocked). Already, the country’s main telecommunications agency, Rozkomnadzor, is pressuring Google over what it calls “fake” news, and is also reportedly restricting Twitter. Other platforms choose to stop operations on their own.
Being cut off from Russia may not pose an existential threat to Western tech platforms, some of which have audiences in the billions. But these measures have major implications for the ability of Russians to access information and speak freely. At a more fundamental level, it could also further accelerate the fracture of the global internet as we know it.
A digital iron curtain
Many of Russia’s recent restrictions on Western tech platforms stem from a “sovereign internet” law Russia enacted in 2019 that allows Roskomnadzor to more tightly control internet access in the country and potentially sever its online ties with the rest of the world.
A law passed by Putin’s government on Friday further entrenches hostility towards Western services, making it a crime to spread ‘false’ information about the invasion of Ukraine, punishable by up to 15 years jail, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The law prompted several outlets, including CNN, to suspend coverage from Russia. TikTok also cited the new legal environment when announcing its decision to prevent further downloads and livestreams on its platform in Russia.
Other tech companies have previously recalled their presence in Russia amid the Ukraine conflict. Apple, Microsoft and Intel have halted all sales and restricted services in the country, while Google, Twitter, Netflix, Spotify and Meta have blocked or restricted Russian state-run media and in some cases shut down altogether advertising in the country. Cogent Communications, one of the world’s largest internet traffic hosts, reportedly began cutting some Russian service providers from its network on Friday.
It’s a perfect storm that could lead to Russia finally isolating its population from the rest of the global internet, just like China has already done.
“The crisis is definitely a flashpoint, and likely a turning point, for Western platforms operating in Russia,” Jessica Brandt, director of policy for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies Initiative at CNN Business, told CNN Business. the Brookings Institution. “Moscow will undoubtedly continue to pressure platforms to remove unflattering content, using all the levers at its disposal. If companies comply, public reactions elsewhere in the world will be intense,” she added.
The term used to refer to the two countries’ respective censorship apparatuses is also similar – where China has its Great Firewall, Russia has been dubbed a Digital Iron Curtain. But while there are many similarities between the two, there are also key differences that raise doubts about Russia’s ability to maintain its own self-sustaining digital ecosystem.
Can the Russian Internet survive without Western technology?
While China has spent decades building up its far-reaching censorship capabilities and has almost always blocked most Western tech platforms from operating in the country, Russia is trying to make that shift while waging war. Russia’s ability to deploy the same level of technology as China is questionable, whether it’s making Western platforms completely inaccessible or even censoring specific content and topics in real time, as does the Chinese government frequently.
“I think a nuanced difference between Russia and China is that China has the technical capability – their big firewall is very sophisticated and Russia doesn’t have that much,” said Xiaomeng Lu, director of the practical geotechnology for Eurasia. Group. “As much as they [Russia] I want to do a full and complete block, I think technically there are challenges.
Unlike China, millions of people in Russia have been accustomed to accessing global technology platforms, and cutting them off from these platforms altogether is something the Russian government under Putin has so far refrained from taking. But that is rapidly changing as the war and resulting Western sanctions continue to escalate.
“Closing it completely, I think, risks some sort of political backlash for the government,” Lu said. However, she adds, “that type of fear is losing out to the fear of regime survival. longer term”.
Russia’s reliance on outside technology has been highlighted as foreign companies sever ties in response to Western sanctions. Texas-based Saber and its European counterpart Amadeus kicked Russia’s biggest airline, Aeroflot, out of their global ticketing and reservations systems last week. The country’s central bank also announced that Apple Pay and Google Pay will no longer support cards from several Russian banks.
Russia has alternatives to global technology platforms such as the Yandex search engine and the VK social network, which have tens of millions of users. But Lu says it’s not “as vibrant an ecosystem as China”, which has several tech giants including Tencent, Alibaba and Weibo that rival their Silicon Valley counterparts.
Russian rigs also face their own collateral damage from the invasion of Ukraine and the resulting Western sanctions. Yandex warned last week that a crash in the stock market due to sanctions could prevent it from paying its debts, and Vladimir Kiriyenko, the CEO of VK’s parent company, is among those sanctioned by the US government. On Monday, Dutch investment firm Prosus announced it would cancel its investment in VK – worth around $700 million – and asked its directors on the company’s board to resign.
“It is the Russian people who will lose a lot”
While the Russian government seems more than ready to kick Western tech platforms from its digital borders, the same cannot be said for the Russian people.
“The Russian government has everything to gain from Big Tech’s exit,” Brandt said. “It is the Russian people who will lose enormously if they are denied access to non-governmental news and information and denied the means to organize themselves.”
There are already signs that Russians are looking for ways to evade internet blockages. 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 this period collectively increased by more than 1,300%, according to app tracking platform Sensor Tower.
Somehow, the digital iron curtain seems to be falling.
Lu admits it’s hard to predict exactly how quickly a complete separation of Russia’s internet from the world will take place, but recent developments indicate it could happen in “weeks or maybe even days.”
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