Russia shuts itself off from the world's internet

Russia shuts itself off from the world's internet
People wait for trains at a train station as they attempt to evacuate the city on February 24, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
  • Russia's tech regulator blocks Facebook claiming "discrimination," lashes out at Google and TikTok.
  • "This is a fork in the road in the history of the planet," a former US ambassador to Russia warned.

Russia has begun to block or limit access to Western technology platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, cutting itself and its citizens off from the rest of the world's internet in drastic fashion as the Ukraine invasion intensifies and criticism increases.

The moves are similar to China's lockdown on internet freedoms in recent years and it's another blow to the dream of an open, global internet.

"This is a fork in the road in the history of the planet," Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia and a director at Stanford's International School, said during a Friday video call with other experts held by the university.

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Roskomnadzor, Russia's tech and communications regulator, said Friday it had fully blocked access to Facebook, owned by the US tech giant Meta Platforms. The regulator did not specify if access would also be restricted to Instagram or WhatsApp, which are also part of Meta.

Twitter throttled and YouTube criticized by Russia

Twitter has been throttled in Russia over the past week, along with Facebook, and on Friday local Russian media outlets began to report the platform was also blocked by Roskomnadzor. The company said it's "aware of reports, but we don't currently see anything significantly different from what we previously shared that would point to a block." That was back on February 26, when Twitter said its service was being restricted for some people in Russia and the company was working to keep its service "safe and accessible."


YouTube went down in the country recently, sparking speculation that the world's largest video sharing platform was being blocked or throttled. Between Thursday and Friday, Roskomnadzor publicly took issue with Google and its YouTube unit, as well as TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance.

The regulator said it sent a letter to Google complaining of ads on YouTube allegedly containing "inaccurate content" with the intent of "misinforming the Russian internet audience" about the country's invasion of Ukraine. Google responded by stopping all ads in the region.

TikTok accused of 'discrimination' against Russian media

As for TikTok, Roskomnadzor said the platform removed certain videos from state-run news site RIA Novosti. Such actions violated "free distribution of information," it said, noting it had recorded other acts of alleged "discrimination" against Russian media and public figures by the site.

"We continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources to detect emerging threats and remove harmful misinformation," a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement on Friday. "We also partner with independent fact-checking organizations to support our efforts to help TikTok remain a safe and authentic place."

TikTok on Friday also revealed a new "expedited" policy on state-run media. It will for the first time begin labeling some posts by state run media outlets. A spokesperson would not comment on its alleged removal of Russian media posts.


Facebook responds

Nick Clegg, Facebook's president of global affairs, said Russia's move to block the platform served only to ensure that the Russian people were "cut off from reliable information" and "deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out."

"We will continue to do everything we can to restore services so they remain available to people to safely and securely express themselves and organize for action," he added. Later on Friday, Facebook halted advertising in Russia and stopped Russian marketers from running its ads anywhere in the world.

In a press release, Roskomnadzor accused Facebook of about two dozen instances of "discrimination" since 2020. The regulator also cited Facebook's recent decision to restrict user access to Russian government-backed news outlets such as Sputnik and Russia Today.

The country's decision to block Facebook comes more than a week after it began throttling, or making it difficult for users in the country to access the world's largest social media service. Clegg said at the time it had refused Russia's demands that it stop fact checking posts about the invasion from state-run media, like RT and Sputnik. Ukrainian officials have been calling on big tech companies to act against Russia in recent days.

Russian internet access is under threat in other ways

Russian access to any platforms is likely to worsen, as connectivity to the internet in the country is starting to be affected amid the invasion. Cogent Communications, a multinational internet service provider based in Washington, said Friday it was cutting off its services in Russia, where it is the second largest carrier in the country. David Schaffer, Cogent's CEO, told The Washington Post he didn't want the company being used for "outbound cyber attacks or disinformation."


Russia's move to block Facebook is similar to China's efforts to create its own heavily censored version of the internet. That effort goes back more than a decade. In 2009, China blocked Facebook as part of a crackdown on protests and riots at the time. It blocked Twitter soon far and blocked Google in 2014.

With non-state run sites and information now largely inaccessible, whether it's blocked, throttled or too difficult to access, McFaul said the issue has moved from controlling disinformation to "what do we do to promote information inside Russia." He suggested to two others on the Stanford call, Yoel Roth, Twitter's head of site integrity, and Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of security policy, that a challenge was before them "to think more proactively about what you can do to support information."

A permanent fragmentation

There may be little either platform can do. Alicia Wanless, a director at the Carnegie Endowment's Partnership for Countering Influence Operations, said getting "total control over their own information space" is something Russia and China have been demanding at the United Nations "for a long time."

"This will essentially create a splintered information ecosystem whereby the West has no ability to influence other countries at all," Wanless said. "Democracies have to…make a response at the UN-level for what the information environment should actually be with Democratic principles."

Russia cutting off access to western platforms and tech providers will also mean corporations the world over, not only in tech, will "have to reassess their activities in totalitarian states," according to Alex Stamos, director of Stanford's Internet Observatory. That means China, too.


"We're going to have to think about how this changes our behavior outside of Russia," Stamos said. "China is the clear country and it's much harder to deal with because it's so much more economically powerful."