Since the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine in late February 2022, Russian Internet users have experienced what is called the descent of a “digital iron curtain†
Russian authorities blocked access to all major opposition news sites, as well as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Below the new draconian laws to fight fake news On the Russo-Ukrainian war, internet users have faced administrative and criminal charges for allegedly spreading disinformation online about Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Most western tech companies, from Airbnb to Apple, have ceased or restricted their Russian activities as part of the wider company exodus from the country†
a lot of russians downloaded virtual private network software to try to access blocked sites and services in the early weeks of the war. At the end of April, 23% of Russian internet users reported using VPNs with varying frequency† The watchdog of the state media, Roskomnadzor, has VPNs blocked to prevent people from circumventing government censorship and stepped up his efforts in June 2022.
While the speed and magnitude of the internet wartime crackdown is unprecedented, it is legal† technical, and rhetorical foundations were laid in the previous decade under the banner of digital sovereignty†
Digital sovereignty for nations is the exercise of state power within national borders over digital processes such as the flow of online data and content, surveillance and privacy, and the production of digital technologies. Under authoritarian regimes such as present-day Russia, digital sovereignty often serves as a veil for obstructing domestic dissidents†
Pioneer of digital sovereignty
Russia has called for enforcement state sovereignty over information and telecommunications since the early 1990s. In the wake of the Cold War, a weakened Russia could no longer compete economically, technologically or militarily with the US. Instead, Russian leaders sought to curtail the US’s emerging global dominance and cling to Russia’s superpower status.
They did this by promoting the superiority of state sovereignty as a fundamental principle of the international order. In the 2000s, in an attempt to project his major resurgence in power, Moscow joined forces with Beijing to lead the global internet sovereignty movement.
The next pivotal moment in Moscow’s embrace authoritarian digital sovereignty came after the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014. Over the next five years, as Russia’s relations with the West deteriorated, the Russian government undertook a barrage of initiatives designed to increase its control over the to strengthen the country’s more networked audience.
For example, the data localization law required foreign technology companies to become Russian citizens data on servers in the country and thus easily accessible to the authorities. Under the guise of counter-terrorism, another law required telecom and internet companies to: keep users’ communications for six months and hand over their metadata to the authorities for three years and on request without a court order.
The Kremlin has used these and other legal innovations to open criminal cases against thousands of internet users and imprison hundreds for “liking” and sharing social media content critical of the government†
The Sovereign Internet Law
In April 2019, Russian authorities took their aspirations for digital sovereignty to another level with the so-called Internet Sovereign Law. The law opened the door for abuse of individual users and isolation from the internet community As a whole.
The law requires all Internet service providers to install state-mandated devices “to counter threats to the stability, security and functional integrity of the Internet” within Russia’s borders. The Russian government has interpreted threats broadly, including content on social media.
For example, the authorities have repeatedly uses this law to limit Twitter’s performance on mobile devices when Twitter has failed to comply with government requests to remove “illegal” content.
Furthermore, the law establishes protocols for the re-routing of all Internet traffic through Russian territory and for a single command center to manage that traffic. Ironically, the Moscow-based center that now controls traffic and fights against foreign circumvention tools, such as the Tor browser† requires Chinese and American hardware and software to function in the absence of their Russian equivalents.
Finally, the law promises to set up a Russian national Domain Name System. DNS is the core database of the worldwide internet that translates between web names such as theconversation.com and their internet addresses, in this case 151.1101.2.133. DNS is operated by a California-based non-profit organization, the Internet Corporation for assigned names and numbers†
When the law was passed, Putin justified the national DNS by stating that the Russian Internet segment could function even if ICANN were to disconnect Russia from the global Internet out of hostility. In practice, when Ukrainian authorities asked ICANN to disconnect Russia from the DNS days after the Russian invasion in February 2022, ICANN has rejected the request† ICANN officials said they wanted to avoid setting the precedent of untying entire countries for political reasons.
Splitting the Global Internet
The Russo-Ukrainian War has undermined the integrity of the global internet, both by the actions of Russia and the actions of technology companies in the West. In an unprecedented move, social media platforms blocked access to Russian state media†
The Internet is a global network of networks. Interoperability between these networks is the basic principle of the Internet. The ideal of a single internet, of course, has always contradicted the reality of the world’s cultural and linguistic diversity: it is not surprising that most users do not clamor for content from distant lands in unintelligible languages. Yet, politically motivated restrictions threaten to fragment the internet in increasingly disjointed networks.
While it may not be fought for on the battlefield, global interconnectivity has become one of the values at stake in the Russo-Ukrainian war. And as Russia has solidified its control over parts of eastern Ukraine, it has… moved the digital Iron Curtain to those borders†
Stanislav Budnitsky is a postdoctoral researcher in Global and International Studies at Indiana University.