Russia tightens internet censorship amid war in Ukraine – Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo during their meeting in Beijing, February 4, 2022.

Alexey Druzhinin | AFP | Getty Images

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, Moscow has sought to tighten its grip on the national internet, shutting down apps built by US tech giants, even as other companies pull their own services off the internet.

CNBC analysts said a move to emulate the internet as it exists in China – perhaps the world’s most restrictive internet environment – remains a long way off, and Russian citizens are still able to circumvent the system’s controls.

In recent years, companies such as Meta, the owner of Facebook, Google and Twitter, have worked in a difficult environment in Russia.

They have come under pressure from the government to remove content that the Kremlin considers unfavorable. The Washington Post reported this month that Russian agents have threatened to jail a Google executive unless the company removes an app that has angered President Vladimir Putin. The companies lived under the threat of suffocation in their services.

With Russia’s Internet gradually increasing control, citizens can still access these global services, making them portals to information other than state-backed media or pro-Kremlin sources.

But the war with Ukraine has once again put American tech giants in the crosshairs, with Putin increasingly wanting more control over information.

Instagram is now blocked in Russia after parent company Meta allowed users in some countries to call for violence against the Russian president and the military amid the invasion of Ukraine. Facebook was banned in Russia last week after restrictions were imposed on government-backed media. Access to Twitter is severely restricted.

These incidents highlight how big tech companies must balance their pursuit of a large market like Russia with the growing demands for censorship.

For Western tech companies, they made a strategic decision at the beginning of the conflict to support Ukraine. This puts them on a collision course with the Russian government,” Abishor Prakash, co-founder of the Center for Future Innovation, told CNBC. . . He added that companies like Meta “choose politics over profits.”

Neither the Russian Foreign Ministry nor its Internet and media monitoring agency Roskomnadzor responded to a request for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Russia cannot do this overnight.

The country’s massive censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, has evolved over two decades and is constantly being refined.

Even virtual private networks, services that can hide users’ locations and identities to help them bypass a firewall, are difficult to provide to ordinary Chinese citizens.

While Russia’s increased internet controls are likely to accelerate this push toward a disparate internet, the country is nowhere near creating anything close to the technical capability behind China’s restrictions.

“It took years for the Chinese authorities to get to where they are today. Their strategy has evolved and adapted during this time. Russia cannot do that overnight,” said Charlie Smith, founder of, an organization that monitors censorship in China. . .

Paul Triulo, senior vice president of China and head of technology policy at strategic consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group, said the Chinese system allows for “more flexibility in internet censorship and internet controllers.” level. In cities, be very specific in targeting traffic or abusive users. »

He added that this is something Russia cannot repeat.

Holes in the Russian firewall

It is difficult for Chinese citizens to circumvent Beijing’s strict restrictions on the Internet. The government has regularly cracked down on VPN apps, which are the best option for evading the Great Firewall.

But the Russians managed to evade the Kremlin’s attempts to censor the Internet. VPNs saw an increase in downloads from Russia.

Meanwhile, Twitter launched a version of its website TorA service that encrypts Internet traffic to mask the identities of users and prevent them from being monitored.

“It seems that Putin underestimated both the level of technical knowledge of his citizens and their willingness to look for solutions to continue access to unofficial information, as well as the many new tools and services, as well as the abuses and channels that have emerged over the past five years,” said Triulo of Albright Stonebridge Group. “Years allow people who really want to maintain access to external information channels to do so.”

Will Chinese companies benefit?

As US and European companies suspend operations in Russia, Chinese tech companies may seek to capitalize. Many of them, from Alibaba to smartphone maker Realme, already have businesses there.

So far, Chinese companies have been silent on the issue of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Beijing has refused to describe Russia’s war on Ukraine as an “invasion” and has not joined US, European, Japanese and other sanctions against Moscow.

So it is a delicate route for Chinese companies.

“So far, there does not appear to be any guidance from central Chinese authorities on how companies should deal with sanctions or export controls, so companies with a large footprint outside China are likely to be reluctant to circumvent restrictions,” Triulo said.

“They will be very careful in identifying Beijing’s wishes here, assessing how to handle requests from Russian customers, both old and new, and assessing the risks to their broader operations to continue cooperating with sanctioned end-user organizations.”

The Chinese are more likely to act on Beijing’s tone, according to Prakash.

If Beijing continues to tacitly support Moscow, Chinese tech companies have many opportunities. The biggest opportunity for these companies is to fill the void created by Western companies when they left Russia. “The ability of these companies to grow their footprint and revenue in Russia is enormous.”

Leave a Comment