Instagram Facebook and Instagram have something in common with the Taliban and Alexei Navalny’s civil rights movement since a court ruling on Monday: they are considered “extremist organizations” in Russia and are officially banned. The networks were already blocked before.
Facebook Instagram’s parent company has temporarily relaxed its rules for Ukrainian users, and calls for violence against the Russian military are no longer being rigorously deleted.
But there is a lot to suggest that Russia is fundamentally interfering with the networks. Citizens will find there unpleasant information about the war in Ukraine, which will interfere with Russian propaganda.
For years, Russia has been trying to control the Internet in the country by legal and technical means. With the attack on Ukraine, the desire for an Internet firewall and a state information monopoly is greater than ever.
But now the Western world is also discussing whether Russia should be isolated in terms of data technology. Thus, with modern means, a new “iron curtain” could be created, which runs through the World Wide Web.
Even today, many sites on the global Internet are almost impossible to reach from Russia. International news portals such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle or Voice of America have been blocked at the latest since the beginning of the war. This also applies to the Latvia-based Meduza platform. The media and telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor justified the bans by saying that the portals would spread false information. Similar threats have already been made against Youtube or Twitter.
Independent Russian media, with the exception of the newspaper “Novaya Gazeta”, de facto no longer exist, reports the organization Reporters without Borders. Since the parliamentary election in 2021, the pressure on the editorial offices has been significantly increased.
How Russia filters unwanted information from its network
It is unclear exactly how Russia technically implements the locks. Nevertheless, Alena Epifanova knows a lot about this. She conducts research at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) on Russia’s domestic and foreign policy in cyberspace. Domestic companies are obliged by the authorities to install technology for the so-called “deep packet inspection” (DPI), she says.
With such technologies, data packets can be monitored and filtered. According to expert estimates, at least 70 percent of Internet service providers are already equipped with it. Instagram Facebook “Now that the authorities have blocked Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, we see that the Russian DPI technology is quite successful.“
A weighty role is played by Yandex, which, with its search engine, its own browser and e-mail service, has a similar offer to Google. Yandex cooperates strongly with the Russian intelligence services, stores data and filters out certain media via its search engine and its own browser.
Hearing in a Moscow court
Facebook Instagram employees of the Russian prosecutor’s Office are taking part in a hearing on the classification of the meta-platforms Facebook and Instagram as extremist organizations.
However, the Russian measures are not as impermeable as the “Great Firewall” in China. This is due to the construction. “The Russian Internet is practically connected to the international Internet via cables and servers, and many foreign companies took part in its construction,” says Epifanova.
In China, on the other hand, the Internet was built up from the outset as a centralized and state-organized network. Instagram Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube are not the only global networks blocked by the People’s Republic today. It also slows down access to almost all international websites, so you are reluctant to use them. Domestic Internet companies such as Tencent and Baidu also employ thousands of censors who delete government-critical content.
Reading independent Internet newspapers is still possible – via detours
With a little technical understanding, the locks in Russia can still be bypassed – with a virtual private network (VPN), for example, which encrypts the connection and thus deprives it of control. The number of users of such services has multiplied in Russia within a few weeks. For the general population, however, the application is not trivial, says Ulrike Gruschka, who is responsible for Eastern Europe at Reporters without Borders as a consultant.
Even through the messenger service Telegram, people in Russia still get independent information. in 2018, the supervisory authority had failed to block the app, and had even triggered mass protests. Now independent media are using their own channels as well as the Russian authorities.
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But in the future, it may become even more difficult for people in Russia to get international websites and independent information. Due to public pressure, some Western technology companies that are important for digital infrastructure, such as Internet service providers Lumen and Cogent, have withdrawn from the country. As a result, traffic to websites – especially abroad – is noticeably slower in Russia. Netflix and Tiktok are also restricting their services.
With a “kill switch”, the West could throw Russia off the grid
In addition, there is a threat of harsh measures from the EU. For the first time, there is also a discussion about cutting Internet connections with Russia. On the one hand, the Ukrainian government is calling for appropriate measures: it wants calls to Russian sites, such as websites with the extension “.ru”, to come to nothing. On the other hand, cybersecurity considerations speak for it.
If Russia were to be disconnected from the global Internet by a so-called kill switch, the rest of the world would be better protected from Russian hacker attacks. Experts warn of such attacks as a retaliatory measure for the sanctions imposed on Russia.
“We will be consulting intensively in the coming months,” said the Vice President of the EU Commission, Margrethe Vestager, in a round of talks at the US technology festival South by South West. However, she also made it clear that this is a difficult decision: “Do we really want to sacrifice the Internet as we know it for cybersecurity?“
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The non-profit organization Icann, which could implement this, has rejected the Ukrainian demands. This virtual telephone directory, managed from Los Angeles, ensures that Internet addresses can be called up correctly. This means that whoever manages such a directory can determine who can reach which page on the Internet from where.
“We are taking measures to ensure that the functioning of the Internet is not politicized,” Icann CEO Göran Mary wrote. There is no authority to impose sanctions. However, the discussion is not over. The first demands for Mary’s resignation have already been made.