U.S. Eases Off Telecom Sanctions That Could Encourage A Russian Splinternet
from the first-do-no-harm dept
As Russia has faced a flood of sanctions for its brutal invasion of Ukraine, many telecom companies, like Lumen and Cogent, also stopped feeding and financing key Internet transit routes into the country. Other companies, like domain registrar Namecheap, made the choice to stop doing business with any current residents of Russia.
While severing Russia from the broader Internet may have felt good for those with a conscience, numerous organizations like The Internet Society warned the decision would likely only help Putin’s goal of a Russian “splinternet,” while potentially harming Russian independent media, human rights defenders, and anti-war protesters.
Putin for years has pushed to isolate Russian citizens from the broader Internet for two major reasons: it’s easier to spy on Russian citizens if they’re only using Russian telecom providers and Russian-based applications and services, and it’s easier to lie to the Russian public using propaganda if the only information they receive comes from Russian information sources.
While a little belated, the U.S. Treasury Department appears to have figured this out, and last week issued a new General License to exempt some communications services, software, hardware, and other connectivity-related technologies (web hosting, domain name registration services, email service companies) from U.S. sanctions against Russia.
The move was in response to a letter by numerous advocacy organizations urging such a license, and warning that broadly blocking Russian citizens from the broader Internet would likely have the reverse impact many had intended:
Access to the internet is essential to the protection of freedom of expression, access to information, and free association, and is increasingly recognized as a human right. Journalism and independent media depend on access to secure and reliable information technologies to document events inside contested areas, and to enable people to bypass state controls on information. Overly broad restrictions on the access of the Russian people to the internet would further isolate the embattled pro-democracy and anti-war activists, and impede the ability of NGOs, human rights groups, journalists, and attorneys inside and outside Russia to provide critical information to citizens about the current state of affairs and their rights. These actions would inadvertently speed up what the Kremlin has set out to achieve through its “sovereign internet” tools – a complete and total control of information space inside Russia.
Companies have every prerogative to make business decisions based on ethical considerations. Namecheap’s leadership informed me, for example, that the company has numerous employees in Ukraine and simply couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to do business in the country.
At the same time, there’s an absolute parade of experts warning that severing the Russian public from the Internet will only make them more susceptible to domestic surveillance and propaganda, something Putin was pushing for (with decidedly mixed success) long before the war began.