Human rights groups warn that more sanctions could hurt Russian Internet access

Since Russia launched its invasion, a combination of crackdowns by Russian authorities on digital services in the country and shutdowns by U.S. businesses wary of possible repercussions for operating in the region have limited Russian users’ access to the Web.

Ukrainian officials have cheered on the private companies’ actions as they push to isolate Russia, politically and digitally, for launching its bloody military campaign in Europe. 

But Internet access advocates are warning U.S. officials and their allies against imposing restrictions that could choke off Russian users’ ability to freely access information and express themselves online — potentially playing into Russia’s hand.

In an open letter to President Biden released Thursday, nonprofits including Access Now and the Wikimedia Foundation voiced concern about “growing calls to interfere with the Russian people’s access to the internet, which we fear will hurt individuals attempting to organize in opposition to the war, report openly and honestly on events in Russia, and access information about what is happening in Ukraine and abroad.”

They are calling on the Treasury Department to create a safe harbor making clear that U.S. businesses can still provide “services, software, and hardware necessary for personal communications over the internet” to users in Russia. It’s a bid to quell concerns companies may have about doing business in the region.

In the letter, the groups stressed that they condemn Russia’s invasion “in the strongest possible terms,” and that they’re not anti-sanctions. But they wrote that any sanctions must be “targeted” and “consistent with international human rights principles,” including those on Internet access. 

The groups argue that a lack of clarity about how sanctions may affect U.S. businesses may be leading companies to overreact and restrict Russian digital services in ways that are counterproductive, even to the Ukrainian cause.

“We see [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Kremlin asserting really extreme and growing controls over information and people’s digital lives, and we don’t want to see the U.S. and its allies playing into Putin’s hands,” Access Now general counsel Peter Micek told me. 

A Treasury Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that unlike some past U.S. sanctions targeting entire regions, the recent sanctions in Russia target specific individuals and institutions. That means that businesses not covered under the sanctions are by default allowed to continue operating, including telecommunications, according to the official. The White House did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday morning.

Russian authorities have recently blocked or restricted access to popular social media sites including Facebook and Twitter and cracked down on independent media outlets, including by passing a new measure outlawing coverage of the war that does not align with the Russian line. 

Moscow has also increasingly pressured foreign companies to leave Russian state-media outlets up on their services — or face the prospect of being blocked.

Meanwhile, amid a flurry of sanctions against Russia from global leaders, U.S. businesses have dramatically downsized their footprint in the region, including by limiting basic digital services. 

In a pair of significant blows to access this past week, two major Internet service carriers — Lumen and Cogent Communications — pulled out of Russia. 

“Taken together, these moves are likely to make it harder for Russians to gain access to international services, such as news sites and social media based in the West, telecommunications experts said,” my colleagues Craig Timberg, Ellen Nakashima and Joseph Menn reported Tuesday.

In the past, Micek said, U.S. sanctions against Iran and Syria have led to “over-compliance” by tech companies seeking to stay within the bounds of the law.

“What we have seen time and again in places like Sudan is a really conservative approach by tech companies that seems to be driven by their lawyers. … I think they find it easier just to cut off entire countries or regions than navigate these sanctions,” he said.

To that end, the groups are calling on the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to issue a license explicitly authorizing companies to offer critical Internet services in Russia, without fear of legal repercussions from sanctions.

This, Micek said, would allow groups like Access Now to go to companies considering withdrawing and say, “When your lawyers start getting cold feet, please remember this.”

Pro-Russia rebels are still using Facebook to recruit fighters, whistleblower alleges

Lawyers for Facebook contractor Joohn Choe filed whistleblower complaints with the Justice Department and Treasury Department that argue that the company engaged in “reckless or willful” violations of U.S. sanctions law by allowing the accounts, Cat Zakrzewski, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg report. Choe says he decided to go public with the complaints in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, driven by concerns that the accounts helped Putin create narratives to justify the war.

Choe also filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission arguing that Facebook misled investors. He is seeking whistleblower protections from the agency.

Choe began warning the company about potential sanctions violations in August, according to emails reviewed by The Post. He compiled a report on how Belarusian police surveilled Facebook posts and used a network on Facebook and Instagram to coordinate arrests and intimidate activists. Though Choe identified accounts linked to GUBOPiK, a sanctioned Belarusian state security service that has been accused of political repression, Choe says Facebook didn’t take action on the accounts, which were still active on Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday afternoon. Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Facebook parent Meta, said the matter was pursued internally.

Meta says it adheres to sanctions. Sanctions don’t always prohibit people from having a presence on Facebook, it says. “This allegation is untrue — we are committed to complying with U.S. sanctions laws and are treating these individuals and entities as we’re required to under U.S. law,” Lever said.

The Internet’s elders have an idea for blocking Russian military, propaganda sites

In an open letter, veteran Internet activists have proposed a new working group to consider what they call technical sanctions that could disrupt Russian military and propaganda sites but leave intact ordinary civilian sites like those used by news organizations, schools and hospitals, Craig Timberg reports. While the details of such a move haven’t been worked out yet, one leading idea would be to give major online networks a blacklist of sites to avoid, a technique that is also used to block sites with malware and spam.

The experts’ letter rejects the idea of disconnecting an entire country from the Internet. That echoes the position of the Internet governance nonprofit ICANN, which previously rejected Ukraine’s proposal to revoke the “.ru” domain and help get rid of their security certificates, which would have made it more difficult for people within Russia to access sites outside of the country.

“Sanctions should be focused and precise,” the letter says. “They should minimize the chance of unintended consequences or collateral damage. Disproportionate or overbroad sanctions risk fundamentally alienating populations.” It was signed by activists, politicians, networking experts, security researchers and others.

Tech companies are racing to evacuate their workers from Russia

Companies are “chartering planes and procuring visas for a well-connected workforce anxious about the stumbling economy, growing isolation and the crackdown on speech and information,” Joseph Menn writes. It’s not clear how many Russians have left the country, though anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is in the tens of thousands.

Russia’s tech industry has exploded in recent years. More than 1.3 million Russians were employed in the industry in 2019, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Many are better educated than the average Russian worker, multilingual and used to consuming news from around the world.

Russian officials have taken steps to try to stem the brain drain, including by dropping the tax on tech company profits to zero. But one promise in particular — a pledge that workers would not be conscripted before age 27 — has backfired, with workers fearing that it meant they would be drafted.

DocGo President Anthony Capone has pledged to finance international volunteers who want to fight for Ukraine. Capone says he’ll “personally cover all travel and equipment expenses” for anyone “that is willing to volunteer but doesn’t have the financial means,” the Verge’s Makena Kelly reports. Documentary producer Derek Mead:

The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel:

  • Pavni Diwanji, a vice president at Facebook parent Meta who led youth product initiatives, is leaving the company, the New York Times reports.
  • Kaili Lambe is Accountable Tech’s new policy and partnerships director. She previously worked as a senior campaigner at the Mozilla Foundation.
  • The McCourt Institute holds its inaugural event on tech governance today.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s AI Commission hosts its first field hearing today at 11 a.m.
  • Accountable Tech hosts a roundtable with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) today at noon.
  • The FCC holds a public hearing on broadband Internet labels on Friday at 1:30 p.m.
  • The Brookings Institution hosts an event on the future of changes to Section 230 on Monday at 10 a.m.
  • Federal Reserve of Richmond senior economist and research adviser Nicholas Trachter and former Justice Department official Gregory Werden speak at an Information Technology & Innovation Foundation event on antitrust Wednesday at 10 a.m.
  • The R Street Institute hosts an antitrust event on Wednesday at noon.

Thats all for today — thank you so much for joining us! Make sure to tell others to subscribe to The Technology 202 here. Get in touch with tips, feedback or greetings on Twitter or email


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