From Instagram to Paypal, Russia’s internet is being dismantled as a digital iron curtain descends

On February 24 in Moscow, when social media was full of the news that Russia had broken its promise and invaded Ukraine overnight, Oleg Shakirov noticed that Facebook wasn’t loading properly.

The text appeared fine but there were just grey squares where the images and videos should have been.

“First they started slowing down Facebook,” the internet security expert said.

“Then after a week they blocked it completely.”

Until recently, Russia’s internet looked, at least on the surface, something like Australia’s: Russians posted videos on Instagram and TikTok, paid for Netflix and Spotify with PayPal, advertised their business on Facebook, sold goods on Etsy, and used Microsoft Office at work.

A crowd of people with placards and Russian flags
President Putin has cracked down on internet freedoms since winning the 2012 presidential election.(Getty: Alexander Nemenov)

Now, all of these are unavailable as a result of the war, with foreign companies withdrawing services and the state looking to increase its control over how Russians use the internet.

A digital iron curtain is falling on Russia — the equivalent of the political boundary dividing Europe during the Cold War.

Here’s what happens when the internet gets dismantled.

The government throttles internet speeds

Though many first noticed the changes on February 24, in fact the Russian government began actively slowing the country’s internet the night before the invasion of Ukraine.

This is the conclusion of Melbourne’s Monash IP Observatory, which remotely monitors the activity and quality of the internet, and can target any location around the world at any given time.

On February 23, the night before the invasion, Russia’s internet saw a sharp spike in latency, or the amount of time it takes for a data packet to travel from one designated point to another.

The spike points to congestion, which suggests the Russian state was either censoring online content or deliberately slowing the internet to restrict access to news media, says Simon Angus, a Monash University data scientist and director of the observatory.

“This isn’t merely that people suddenly got interested in an invasion. It hadn’t occurred yet,” Dr Angus said.

Russia had done this before, said Paul Raschky, another member of the Monash IP Observatory.

With TV, radio and newspapers now “more or less state-controlled”, throttling internet speeds has proved an effective way of preventing civilians reporting on what was happening in their region, Professor Raschky said.

“The internet is the one source left where you can get diverse opinion.”

Social media and news sites blocked

In the first week of the invasion, Russia’s war went badly, with high losses, a failure to meet stated objectives, and an online barrage of videos showing destroyed Russian tanks, trucks and aircraft.

At the same time, Ukraine assembled a large global army of volunteer hackers that took the fight to the aggressor.

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