As the Russian military offensive in Ukraine rages on, many internet companies and providers have pulled their services from Russia in solidarity with Ukrainians. In addition, many countries have implemented or are considering sanctions that could interfere with Russian internet access. However, the restriction of internet services in Russia has an unintended consequence: the further isolation of Russian citizens and media from the free flow of truthful information online.
To combat this, the U.S. Treasury Department has extended a general license to exempt certain services “incident to the exchange of communications over the internet” from U.S. sanctions against Russia, including “instant messaging, videoconferencing, chat and email, social networking, sharing photos, movies and documents, web browsing, blogging, web hosting, and domain name registration services[.]”
The general license serves an important purpose of helping to avoid a Russian “splinternet” — an internet closed off from outside providers and services, which is easier for the state to control. China’s great firewall is often pointed to as an example of the concept.
Keeping internet communications channels open is especially important for reporters, as a number of advocacy groups highlighted in a letter to the government urging the granting of a general license. As the letter noted, journalists and independent media depend “on access to secure and reliable information technologies to document events inside contested areas, and to enable people to bypass state controls on information.”
The Treasury’s general license reflects a sensitivity to those unintended consequences of sanctions against Russia — that restricting the internet in Russia to Russian service providers and content creators could cut off the Russian populace from knowing “what was being carried out in their name,” as the Internet Society warned.
The general license has heightened importance in light of the Russian government’s aggressive shuttering of free press within its borders. Virtually all independent news outlets, including long-running radio station Echo of Moscow and TV Rain, have shuttered operations in Russia under threat of prosecution for disinformation.
One of the last remaining publications covering the war, newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has suspended operations until the war has ended after receiving a second warning from Russia’s tech and communications regulator, Roskomnadzor. The paper’s last edition covering the invasion sold out within hours of publication. While no substitute for an independent press within Russia, the general license at least helps ensure that the response to Russia’s war does not counterproductively further isolate the country from outside information.
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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Legal Fellow Grayson Clary and Technology and Press Freedom Project Legal Fellow Gillian Vernick.