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A young man wearing a face mask checks his mobile phone at the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, May 26, 2020. © 2020 Jesus Merida / SOPA Images/Sipa via AP Images

(Berlin) – Several leading foreign tech companies have withdrawn from Russia or suspended operations in the two weeks since Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine, exacerbating the risk of isolation from the global internet for the country’s residents.

Withdrawals of tech companies come at a time when Russian authorities have doubled down on the use of their “sovereign internet” technology to block access to numerous independent media and social media platforms. Such technology potentially enables Russia to put the entire country in digital isolation. Foreign tech companies and governments should carefully assess how their actions may contribute to the eradication of the remaining online freedoms in Russia and take steps to mitigate undue restrictions based on their human rights responsibilities and obligations. 

“Millions of Russians rely on the internet for information on current affairs and communication with the outside world amid unprecedented government censorship,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign tech companies should seek to provide services and products to people in Russia to help them access the internet and mitigate the risks of isolation.”

Withdrawals come at a time of vicious crackdown by Russian authorities on independent war reporting and any form of public criticism, including online, of Russia’s military offensive on Ukraine.

After President Vladimir Putin announced “a special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the European Union, United States, United Kingdom, and other countries imposed a raft of unprecedented sanctions on Russia – both sectorial and individual – designed to push authorities to cease the military offensive on Ukraine.

On February 28, the Ukrainian government asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to cut Russia off from the global internet. ICANN, however, denied the request as “neither technically feasible nor within its mission.”

US sanctions that bar transactions with Russian authorities and various individuals affect technology firms, and EU sanctions specifically address dual-use technology and cutting-edge technologies. However, it is unclear to what extent these sanctions allow companies to continue providing modern communication technologies. This uncertainty appears to have prompted differences in responses from foreign tech companies operating in Russia.

Some companies suspended certain aspects of their business in Russia that they concluded fell under sanctions after consulting with the governments and civil society.

Several foreign businesses, ranging from software developers to large backbone providers, suspended their operations in Russia entirely, in some cases citing sanctions as a major or the main reason. Other companies suspended certain aspects of their operations under sanctions, but “in addition” announced they were leaving the Russian market, apparently on their own initiative.

Since February 24, Russian authorities have blocked numerous Russian and foreign media outlets, including Echo of Moscow, Dozhd, Meduza, and BBC Russian Service over their coverage of the war in Ukraine.

On March 4, the Russian authorities fully blocked access to Facebook and Twitter for “discriminating against Russian media” because they imposed labels on and restricted access to the official accounts of Russian state and pro-Kremlin outlets in Europe. On March 11, the authorities announced they were fully blocking Instagram in Russia, to go into effect March 14, in response to a temporary exception by its parent company, Meta, to its hate speech policy for users in Ukraine for posts that contain calls for violence against Russian armed forces that refer to the war in Ukraine.

These blockings might have been facilitated by the deep packet inspection technology the Russian government required service providers to install in their networks with the 2019 “sovereign internet” law. This technology allows Russia to filter unwanted content directly.

In addition to blocking platforms, this law created a legal framework for centralized state management of the internet within Russia’s borders, restricting internet traffic to and from the country, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting the public against vaguely defined “threats to security, integrity, and sustainability” of the internet in Russia.

Website blockings and the potential cut-off from global internet run contrary to Russia’s obligations to protect and uphold free expression and access to information under international human rights law.

On March 9, Russia’s leading nongovernmental digital rights group Roskomsvoboda urged foreign IT companies to continue providing services in Russia, noting that companies’ withdrawal might, among other things, serve as a “convenient pretext for the Russian authorities” to interpret these actions as a “threat” and trigger the “sovereign internet” law.

On March 7, Russia’s Digitalization Ministry said it was not planning to isolate the Russian segment of the internet. The day after the Ministry’s statement, its own website, along with several other official websites, appeared to be hacked and displayed an anti-war poster for about an hour. The government might consider that such unprecedented cyberattacks, including on Russian governmental sites, also fall under the definition of “threats” to the internet in Russia under the “sovereign internet” law.

The exit of foreign tech companies, including foreign registrars, entities managing domain names and IP addresses, has already prompted the Coordination Center for Top Level National Domains .RU and .PФ to recommend the that administrators of these domains should switch to registrars and hosting based in Russia. While these measures might allow these sites to continue operating, they also increase the control of the Russian government over the internet infrastructure.

In a March 10 letter, 40 human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged the Biden administration in the US and like-minded governments seeking to sanction Russia and allies for its abuses in Ukraine to authorize companies to provide services, software, and hardware incident to personal communications over the internet.

In the meantime, companies should adhere to their human rights responsibilities and take steps to mitigate adverse human rights implications of any decisions they make to go beyond what’s required by governments’ sanctions.

“Russian civil society has been pushing back on its government’s efforts to censor and isolate the internet for years,” Williamson said. “Foreign tech companies and governments should carefully evaluate how their actions could play into the hands of the Kremlin by contributing to increasing isolation of Russian internet users.”

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