‘Disastrous for press freedom’: What Russia’s goal of an isolated internet means for journalists

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents a danger not only for reporters operating in the war zone. The campaign could also pose a broader threat to press freedoms and other civil liberties if it brings the Kremlin closer to its dream of creating a domestically controlled internet.

Russia’s internet regulator, Rozkomnadzor, has long been able to compel internet service providers to block content or reroute traffic. In 2019, the “sovereign internet” bill took state control a step further by empowering authorities to sever Russian internet infrastructure from the global internet during an emergency or security threat.

Concerns about a fractured internet ecosystem, or “splinternet,” have only grown since the invasion. Russia has banned Twitter, Facebook, and more than a dozen independent media organizations. Meanwhile, after U.S.-based software firms and internet carriers started pulling out of Russia, CPJ and other civil society groups warned that restricting access could backfire by isolating the Russian people and journalists. That helped prompt a U.S. government order allowing telecom companies to operate in Russia despite sanctions.

Russia is now seeking to export its state-controlled version of the internet on the global stage, promoting its own candidate to lead the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the agency responsible for information and communication technology. That could shift control of internet operations away from the U.S.-based non-profit, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which coordinates the internet’s naming system and develops policy on the internet’s unique identifiers.

Russia is not alone in pursuing domestic internet control. China’s Great Firewall is perhaps the best known, while Iran’s National Information Network (the “Halal Network”), North Korea’s national intranet, and Cambodia’s forthcoming National Internet Gateway all seek the same end, with slightly different means.

CPJ emailed Rozkomnadzor’s press office for comment on Russia’s intentions regarding its plans for a sovereign internet and the ITU candidacy, but did not receive a response.

CPJ spoke with Justin Sherman, a nonresident fellow at U.S.-based think tank the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, by phone about the splinternet and its implications for the future of the internet and press freedom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Justin Sherman, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. (Photo: Atlantic Council)

What is the splinternet?

When the internet first started spreading around the world, most countries welcomed it. They wanted the interconnection, the open flow of online goods, research, and information. The splinternet is emerging in response to that globalization. Over the past two decades, a number of countries have wanted to control that flow of data, and so have worked to isolate and repress their online environment.

The internet is splintering in different ways. In some countries, if you pull up the internet, you’re going to be viewing an entirely different thing than you are in the rest of the world. In China, for example, you’re seeing a heavily censored version of what everyone else sees on the internet. You can’t pull up foreign news websites. Your email application might not work well. And the state is imposing tons of censorship on the internet in its country. Another example is what the Russian government is doing, pushing to actually be able to cut off their internet from the globe.

How is the cutting off the internet different than what China is doing?

Russia is not nearly [able to cut itself off from the internet] yet. China, largely speaking, is fine with just content censorship. Their state control goes all the way down to the wires and cables. But their main focus is making sure that you can’t access state critical information, that you can’t access foreign news websites. The Russian government wants to go all the way down to the deepest levels and actually cut off the entire internet in Russia from the rest of the world with the flip of the switch. It’s going far below that content level and actually trying to isolate the infrastructure and the architecture.

How has the Ukraine conflict hastened a potential splinternet?

The Russian government, since its illegal war in Ukraine, has engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on the internet. Domestically, they have targeted journalists. They have targeted dissidents. They have targeted ordinary citizens who asked questions about the war. They have targeted foreign technology and internet companies. On the flip side, many Western internet companies have restricted Russian access to their services or pulled out of Russia altogether. Some of this is sanctions compliance. Some of this is convenient PR, where they can say, “We’re doing a good thing.” They can say to Western governments, “We do support Democratic values.” The problem is, if you’re making a decision like pulling internet services from a country based on PR, you’re not actually considering the impacts on press freedom and on civil liberties in that country. There are a lot of Western internet companies pulling out of Russia and causing severe damage to journalists and dissidents in civil society.

If Russia were to self-isolate, does that have any effect on the overall framework that governs the internet or on structures like security certificates and IP addresses?

For several reasons, yes. One is Russia isolating its internet completely would set a very dangerous precedent and example for other countries. We already see lots of countries that are former Soviet republics copying Moscow’s internet control model. The Russian government, when it talks about an isolated internet, talks about its own protocols, about controlling Russian internet domains. Recent events like the Ukrainian government asking ICANN to discontinue service to .ru addresses, which ICANN promptly declined, plays into the Kremlin’s paranoia, this belief that Russia needs to be isolated because other countries are attacking us online.

What’s the worst-case scenario if a Russian “hermit internet” were to emerge?

The worst case is the Russian government is able to isolate its internet. You would have diminished global insight into what’s happening in Russia, including human rights and press abuses. Civil society groups and actors from journalists to dissidents in Russia would have a harder time accessing free information. And because so many companies pulled out of Russia or are blocked, more and more Russians are going to turn to domestic Russian internet platforms. And the reality is that something like [Russian social media network] VK is far more censored and surveilled by the Russian government than literally any platform the West is providing for Russia. There’s a reason a lot of Russian journalists are active on things like Twitter and Facebook and are not necessarily going on VK and blasting these articles exposing corruption.

Are there particular countries that are more apt to adopt a hermit internet approach?

The Iranian government is partly there. There is access to the global internet in Iran, though it’s heavily filtered. And there is also a domestic internet, the National Information Network, that’s been around about a decade now and hosts mostly state-approved domestic content. The government tries to get people to use this domestic internet by making it cheaper and faster than accessing global content.

But Russia stands out in really wanting to deeply and fundamentally isolate its domestic internet. Not every country wants to go to that depth, because you get extraordinary economic benefits from global internet connectivity. But you have plenty of countries who will take pieces of what Russia and Iran are doing. And you might have other states who are run by authoritarian regimes, who are extremely paranoid and security focused, and who don’t care as much about the economic benefits of the internet because they are under such heavy sanctions by foreign countries.

Are there other implications for press freedom should a hermit internet emerge, inside or outside of Russia?

Journalists in Russia are going to have a far harder time to do reporting and get that reporting out to other citizens, because more people will be using domestic platforms that the state has infiltrated, or will not have access to foreign platforms and websites. On the external side, it’s harder for journalists globally to get information into Russia on things that are going on, not just in Russia, but around the world.

More internet isolation in Russia would be disastrous for press freedom. It was already extremely dangerous to be an independent journalist in Russia. That environment has gotten much worse in recent weeks, with many long-time Russian analysts talking about totalitarianism. It’s going to be harder for those journalists to do their jobs independently and safely if they lose more access to online platforms and services.

Does the threat of a splinternet impact the importance of the ITU candidacy?

The Russian government has been disturbingly successful in the last three or four years in getting repressive internet proposals passed in the U.N. In December 2019, you had the Russian government get a bunch of countries who historically supported a free, open internet, like India, to sign onto a proposal with China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. The war on Ukraine has changed that. In recent weeks, Russian delegates have been kicked out of internet working groups, and there is much less interest in places like the ITU to allow the Russian government any sort of leadership role. That said, they’re continuing to push for it, and there are plenty of countries, including those they are targeting with propaganda, who support the war in Ukraine.

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