Information Control on the Global Internet: The Digital Iron Curtain & Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Opinion by Georgia Evans.

A photo of the Ukrainian flag, backlit by the sun.

Since February 24th, the world has watched in horror as Russia has invaded Ukraine; over 1.5 million have fled the country, civilians have been senselessly killed, and homes and cities have been destroyed [1]. War brings destruction. But war also brings propaganda and information control; to rally around the flag necessitates messages that invoke enough passion to do so.

Propaganda is a modern technique, tried and tested by governments since World War I (WWI) [2]. There are many characteristics to propaganda, many ways in which it excites its target audience and persuades them to rally behind a cause. The one true characteristic, however, is that “propaganda must be total” [3]. Every available medium must be used to purvey the message. In WWI and WWII, this meant printed newspapers, magazines, radio, posters, and rallies. In Vietnam, the message spread to television.

Today, the largest global communications network – the internet – brings a unique characteristic to war that is still novel to the world. The internet is the most total communication tool that exists. Now we carry print news, magazines, radio, and television in our pockets, in addition to the never-ending generation of content on social media. But propaganda requires more than just disseminating a message through different media, it's achieved through censorship and legislation [3].

In Russia, thousands of citizens have been detained for protesting the war [4]. As they shouted out against it, Putin has been cracking down on information control. Russian propaganda has been described as a “firehose of falsehood,” making no commitment to “objective reality” [5]. This is evident through Putin’s claims that he aims to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine, a term that has specific connotations to the removal of Nazis from Germany after WWII, and even more so in his claims that Ukraine is “not a real country” [6]. Beyond this messaging that Putin and the Kremlin are pumping out, is a story of censorship and what they are not letting in.

A digital iron curtain is building between Russia and the world. Facebook and Twitter have been blocked from Russia, and YouTube is in doubt [7]. Facebook was blocked because of the platform’s efforts to impose restrictions on Russian-controlled media outlets [8]. In 2019, a law was passed by Putin’s government to allow the Roskomnadzor, the federal agency charged with surveilling, controlling and censoring mass media, to more tightly control the internet [9]. On Friday, March 4th, the state introduced a more severe law that would punish people who publish or spread so-called misinformation with a 15-year prison sentence, and could open up companies and their employees to liability for hosting such content [10]. But defining misinformation is up to the discretion of the Russian government and referring to the invasion of Ukraine as a war online could have massive consequences [11]. For free speech through both legacy news media and user-generated content, this is a terrible development, one that will further isolate Russian citizens from the reality beyond its borders and outside of the Kremlin’s control. Moreover, rumours have been circulating that Russians seeking to maintain an online presence will need to switch to .RU, the Russian top-level domain, and seek domestic hosting [12]. This would effectively draw a border around the Russian experience online from that of the rest of the world.

But efforts to digitally isolate Russia from the rest of the world are not being advanced by Putin alone. The West has played a large role in building this digital wall, and further fracturing the “free and open” global internet. In a move that shocked the global internet governance community, Ukraine’s representative to the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) asked the global Domain Name System (DNS) management organization to remove Russian-administered top-level domains from the DNS root zone [13]. The European Regional Internet Registry, RIPE NCC, was quick to administer a statement saying that they wouldn’t let geopolitical conflict stand in the way of administering key internet resources [14]. Others in the global internet governance community were quick to denounce the request, citing that it would fracture the open internet [15]. ICANN declined the request [16]. Importantly, disconnecting the Russian internet would harm citizens, as it would hinder the ability to access information that is outside of the government’s control at a time when the free flow of information is as important as ever.

Actions have also been taken outside of the DNS level. Numerous websites, platforms, software services, and hardware providers will be made unavailable in the country. Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Intel, and Adobe have all stopped selling products, with Apple shutting down Apple Pay, Google suspending Google Pay and the Google Play store, TikTok and Netflix have both suspended access to services [17]. In addition to the suspension of these software and payment services, platforms, and sales of products, Russia is being cut off from internet provider Cogent’s backbone network [18]. While Cogent’s network is not the only internet traffic route into the country, it’s akin to cutting off a major artery and slowing down blood flow.

As isolating actions by Russia and Western companies grow in size and severity, worries for the free and open Internet, and about the creation of the ‘Splinternet’, are growing in tandem. But the Splinternet is already here, and the free and open global Internet has been dead for a long time. In many countries, the online experience is freer than others, and the Internet is still a vital resource for people in both democratic and oppressive regimes across the globe, especially in oppressive regimes. But the Great Firewall of China, Russian crackdowns, Internet shutdowns in Iran, content controls in the United Kingdom have all removed the possibility of the Internet and online experiences being the same no matter where you are in the world. The multi-stakeholder governance of the internet, while allowing institutions like ICANN and RIPE NCC to stay neutral and independent in times of geopolitical conflict, has not stopped governments and corporate actors from bending the Internet to their whims.

Moving forward, protecting the resiliency and stability of the network of networks will remain a priority; but providing vulnerable people with the information and tools that are needed to stay safe is of the utmost importance. While we in the internet community often use the ideals of the free and open internet to promote the former, the latter is what we ought to remember we are really working for.

 

Sources [1] Aditi Sangal et al., “March 7, 2022, Russia-Ukraine news,” CNN, 2022, March 8, https://www.cnn.com/europe/live-news/ukraine-russia-putin-news-03-07-22/index.html

[2] Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, 2016, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 37-50; 108-122; 350-353; 361-363.

[3] Jacques Ellul, “The Characteristics of Propaganda” in Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1965, (New York: Vintage Books), v-viii; 3-20; 48-61; 84-87

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reuters, “More than 4,300 detained at anti-war protests in Russia,” 2022, March 07, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/more-than-64-people-detained-anti-war-protests-russia-protest-monitor-2022-03-06/

[5] Christopher Paul & Miriam Matthews, “The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It,” 2016, RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE198.html

[6] Olivia B. Waxham, “Historians on What Putin Gets Wrong About ‘Denazification’ in Ukraine,” 2022, March 03, TIME, https://time.com/6154493/denazification-putin-ukraine-history-context/; Peter Pomerantsev, “What Putin’s Nazi Talk Reveals About His Plans for Ukraine,” 2022, March 04, TIME, https://time.com/6154853/putins-nazi-talk-reveals-plans-for-ukraine/

[7] Adam Satariano and Valerie Hopkins, “Russia, Blocked From the Global Internet, Plunges Into Digital Isolation,” 2022, March 07, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/07/technology/russia-ukraine-internet-isolation.html

[8] Rishi Iyengar, “The digital Iron Curtain: How Russia’s internet could soon start to look a lot like China’s” 2022, March 08, CNN Business, https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/07/tech/russia-internet-facebook-block-iron-curtain/index.html

[9] Ibid.

[10] Oliver Darcy, “CNN, BBC, and others suspend broadcasting from Russia after Putin signs law limiting press,” 2022, March 4, CNN Business, https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/04/media/bbc-cnn-russia-putin-media-law/index.html

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jeff Parsons, “Russians ‘to be disconnected from global internet from Friday,’ 2022, March 7, Metro, https://metro.co.uk/2022/03/07/russia-preparing-to-disconnect-from-global-internet-on-march-11-16230918/

[12] Milton Mueller, “ICANN, Ukraine and Leveraging Internet Identifiers,” 2022, March 01, The Internet Governance Project , https://www.internetgovernance.org/2022/03/01/icann-ukraine-and-leveraging-internet-identifiers/

[13] Christian Kaufmann, “[ripe-list] RIPE NCC Executive Board Resolution on Provision of Critical Services,” 2022, March 01, RIPE NCC, https://www.ripe.net/ripe/mail/archives/ripe-list/2022-March/002462.html

[14] Kat Bouza and Noah Shachtman, “Exclusive: Ukraine Pushes to Unplug Russia From the Internet,” 2022, March 01, Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/ukraine-icann-russia-internet-runet-disconnection-1314278/

[15] Adam Satariano and Valerie Hopkins, “Russia, Blocked From the Global Internet, Plunges Into Digital Isolation,”


[16] Ibid.

[17] Scott Nover, “The Russian internet is a casualty of war,” 2022, March 07, Quartz, https://qz.com/2138398/the-russian-internet-is-a-casualty-of-the-war-with-ukraine/

[18] Stephen Shankland, “Russian Internet Takes a Hit as Cogent Disconnects Backbone Network,” 2022, March 7, CNET, https://www.cnet.com/news/russian-internet-takes-a-hit-as-cogent-disconnects-backbone-network/