Internet Services Weigh the Value of Continued Ties With Russia

    17 March 2022

    Western technology companies recently began cutting ties with Russia after its invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

    And the Russian government has long worked to control the internet in the country and how citizens get information.

    This has worried Russian investigative reporter Andrei Soldatov. He spent years reporting on Russian censorship. Now, he lives in exile. He is worried that efforts to help Ukraine will instead help Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to control the internet.

    This Aug. 5, 2020 photo shows pages from the U.S. State Department's Global Engagement Center special report on the spread of disinformation by Russia. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)
    This Aug. 5, 2020 photo shows pages from the U.S. State Department's Global Engagement Center special report on the spread of disinformation by Russia. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

    He said the social media service Facebook was a way for Russians to talk about what was going on in Ukraine.

    Facebook has not left. But the Russian government has restricted access to the service. It has used a new law to make it a crime to spread information that disputes government statements.

    Western media and independent news services have been blocked in Russia. Another social media site, Instagram, also faces restricted access. However, the latest censorship efforts have shown how even the average Russian can get around these efforts to restrict the internet.

    For example, the government has so far only had limited success in blocking virtual private networks, or VPNs. These methods permit users to go around internet restriction. The Associated Press says that efforts to restrict the use of software that defeats censorship also have not been fully successful.

    Foreign tech companies in Russia

    Internet services providers and services which have sympathy for Ukraine have a difficult choice. They face pressure to punish the Russian government. They also face economic pressure to limit their services because it is unclear if they will be paid. However, they are worried about stopping the free flow of information which can balance Russian efforts for media control.

    Amazon Web Services which provides internet storage in what is called the cloud continues to operate in Russia. But it is not taking on new customers. Two other internet companies, Cloudflare and Akamai, are also still operating in Russia. But they are not working with state-owned companies and companies under international sanctions.

    Microsoft has not said if it will stop its cloud services in the country. But it suspended all new sales of its products and services.

    One major U.S.-based internet provider, Cogent, has cut direct connections inside Russia. But it has left its network available for partner Russian network providers to use. So has the American company Lumen Technologies.

    Cogent chief Dave Schaeffer said, "We have no desire to cut off Russian individuals and think that an open internet is critical to the world." He said direct connections to internet providing servers inside Russia could be used for online attacks.

    Internet control

    Under a 2019 "sovereign internet" law, Russia is supposed to be able to operate its internet independent of the rest of the world.

    Its telecommunications oversight agency, Rozkomnadzor, successfully tested the system a year ago when it restricted access to Twitter. It uses hundreds of devices that are controlled by government officials that can block individual websites and serviced. Those devices are placed by law at all internet providers inside Russia. The system also lets FSB security service spy on Russian citizens. 

    Andrew Sullivan is the president of the nonprofit Internet Society which is based in the U.S. He said there is no evidence that Russia can successfully disconnect itself from the wider internet.

    For people within Russia, being able to access outside websites and programs depend on foreign-based VPNs and similar methods. However, Russians say they have trouble paying for such services since credit providers Visa and Mastercard cut off Russia earlier this month.

    I'm Gregory Stachel.

    Frank Bajak and Barbara Ortutay reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    censor – v. to examine books, movies, or letters in order to remove things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, or harmful to society

    access – n. a way of being able to use or get something

    sanction – n.(pl.) actions taken to force a country to obey international law by limiting or stopping trade or cutting economic aid

    customer –n. a person who buys goods or services from a business

    sovereign – adj. having independent authority and the right to govern itself

    monitor – v. to watch, observe, listen to, or check (something) for a special purpose over a period of time

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