Russia tightens internet censorship during war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo as they meet in Beijing on February 4, 2022.

Alexei Druzhinin | AFP | Getty Images

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, Moscow has sought to tighten control of its national internet, shutting down apps created by US tech giants, even as other companies have pulled their own services from the internet. country.

But a move to emulate the internet as it exists in China – perhaps the world’s most restricted online environment – is still a long way off, and Russian citizens are still managing to circumvent system controls, analysts said. at CNBC.

In recent years, companies such as Meta, owner of Facebook, Google and Twitter have operated in a difficult environment in Russia.

They have come under pressure from the government to remove content that the Kremlin deems unfavorable. The Washington Post reported this month that Russian agents had threatened to jail a Google executive unless the company removed an app that had angered President Vladimir Putin. And businesses have lived under the threat of throttling their services.

As Russia’s internet gradually became more controlled, citizens could still access these global services, making them gateways to information other than state-backed media or pro-Kremlin sources.

But the war with Ukraine has once again put the US tech giants in the crosshairs, as Putin’s desire for more control of information grows.

Instagram is now blocked in Russia after its parent company Meta allowed users in certain countries to call for violence against the Russian president and military amid the invasion of Ukraine. Facebook was blocked in Russia last week after imposing restrictions on government-backed media. Access to Twitter is heavily restricted.

These incidents highlight how Big Tech companies must balance their pursuit of a large market like Russia with growing demands for censorship.

“For Western tech companies, they made a strategic decision early in the conflict to support Ukraine. This puts them on a collision course with the Russian government,” Abishur Prakash, co-founder of the Center for Innovating the Future. . He added that companies like Meta “choose politics over profits.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry and its media and internet watchdog Roskomnadzor did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by CNBC.

“Russia cannot do this overnight”

Russia’s tightening online grip has revived talk about a “splinternet” – the idea that two or more divergent internets will operate in increasingly separate online worlds.

Nowhere is this separation clearer than in China, where the services of Google, Meta, Twitter and foreign news outlets are blocked.

Instead of WhatsApp, Chinese citizens use WeChat, the popular messaging app with over a billion users, for example. Google search is replaced by Baidu. Weibo replaces Twitter.

The country’s massive censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, has developed over two decades and is continually being refined.

Even virtual private networks, services that can hide users’ locations and identities to help them bypass the firewall, are hard to come by for ordinary Chinese citizens.

While Russia’s growing internet controls will likely accelerate this push towards divergent internets, the country is nowhere near creating anything close to the technical capability behind China’s restrictions.

“It took years for the Chinese authorities to get to where they are today. And their strategy has evolved and adapted over that time. Russia can’t do this overnight,” Charlie Smith said. , founder of GreatFire.org, an organization that monitors censorship in China. .

Paul Triolo, senior vice president for China and head of technology policy at strategic advisory firm Albright Stonebridge Group, said China’s system allows “internet censors and internet controllers much more granular leeway.” to monitor traffic, disable geo-zones, including down to the block level. in cities, and be very specific in their targeting of traffic or offending users.”

This is something Russia cannot replicate, he added.

Holes in the Russian firewall

It is difficult for Chinese citizens to circumvent Beijing’s strict internet controls. The government has regularly cracked down on VPN apps, which are the best option to evade the Great Firewall.

But the Russians managed to evade the Kremlin’s attempts to censor the internet. VPNs have seen an increase in downloads from Russia.

Meanwhile, Twitter launched a version of its website on Tora service that encrypts Internet traffic to hide users’ identities and prevent them from being monitored.

“Putin seems to have misjudged both the level of technical knowledge of his citizens and their willingness to seek workarounds to continue accessing unofficial information, and the many new tools and services, as well as workarounds and channels that have sprung up over the past five years that allow people who really want to retain access to outside channels of information to do so,” said Triolo of the Albright Stonebridge Group.

Will Chinese companies benefit?

Like American and European companies suspend operations in Russia, Chinese tech firms may seek to take advantage. Many of them, from Alibaba to smartphone maker Realme, already have business there.

So far, Chinese companies have remained silent on the issue of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Beijing has refused to call Russia’s war on Ukraine an “invasion” and has not joined the sanctions of the United States, the European Union, Japan and others against Moscow.

It is therefore a delicate path for Chinese companies.

“So far, there does not appear to be any guidance from central Chinese authorities on how companies should handle sanctions or export controls, so companies with large footprints outside of China will likely be reluctant to circumvent restrictions,” Triolo said.

“They will be very careful in determining Beijing’s wishes here, assessing how to handle requests from Russian customers, old and new, and assessing the risks to their broader operations of continuing to cooperate with sanctioned end-user organizations. “

The Chinese are likely to act depending on Beijing’s tone, according to Prakash.

“If Beijing continues to tacitly support Moscow, then Chinese tech companies have several opportunities. The biggest opportunity is for these companies to fill the void that Western companies created when they left Russia,” he said. declared. “The ability of these companies to grow their footprint and revenue in Russia is huge.”

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