Technology at war: The digital iron curtain goes up – Runet vs. VPNs, and free speech vs. easy propaganda — – Bob


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There are many tech angles to the war in Ukraine.   Many threats that have until now been theoretical – like creation of a “Ru-net” as an alternative to the Internet – are becoming a reality.  Tech firms are making very hard decisions. Is it better to cut off Russia or allow free communication, with all the risks and benefits it provides?  Here’s a roundup of news from the past couple of days that caught my eye. It is not by any means exhaustive.  I’ll try to do this occasionally as the war progresses.  I hope and pray I won’t have to do this for long.

The digital iron curtain

Cutting off Internet access to a country the size of Texas is not as simple as cutting a few cables or bombing a few cell towers.  Still, regional outages in Ukraine are becoming common. Casting a population into digital darkness makes the real-life suffering that much worse.

NBC News: Connectivity varies wildly across Ukraine, but overall has dipped about 20 percent since the invasion began, said Alp Toker, the director of Netblocks, a British business that tracks internet outages across the globe.

“It’s a big melee right now,” he said. “You have total outages, you have slowdowns, and you have physical cuts involving power,” he said. “We know that war has impacts on telecommunications, but what we’ve seen in Ukraine is on a different level.”

There are reasons for Russia to avoid destroying all digital infrastructure.  Advancing Russian troops need it to communicate. And it might have been prepared for this moment, years ago, as a surveillance tool.

Politico:  Furthermore, prior to the 2014 Crimea annexation, most of Ukraine’s telecommunications providers were either owned by Russians or Russian-Ukrainian businesspeople, giving Moscow the opportunity to lean on the private sector for help infiltrating networks, said Chris Kubecka, a cyberwarfare specialist who traveled to Ukraine before the invasion to help a nuclear power facility prepare for Russian cyber threats.

“It’s easy to put surveillance on telecoms if you have a foothold,” Kubecka said. “Now [the Russians] have blueprints, probably backdoors.”

As I mentioned above, the logistics of Internet connections make this conversation far more nuanced than many realize.

Ukrainian mobile operator Ukrtelecom kept running the network for almost a year after the annexation in parts of Crimea, until armed guards surrounded the company’s offices and blocked employees from entering, according to TeleGeography, a consulting firm. Crimean providers relied on Ukrainian infrastructure while Russian state-owned provider Rostelecom laid a new submarine cable across the Kerch Strait to connect Crimea directly with Russia without having to pass through Ukraine.

It makes sense for companies to cut off Russia. But there are potential long-term implications.

WaPost: Depriving rivals of American-made technology also threatens the future global prospects of an industry that has driven U.S. economic growth for most of this century. The rise of a Russian Google — or a Chinese Facebook or an Iranian YouTube — are not theoretical developments. They are happening already.

Meanwhile, speculation grows that Russia will try to erect some kind of digital iron curtain. Feels like some analysts are jumping the gun on this one. But highly degraded Internet access from Russia to the outside world is highly likely, as Western firms stop doing business there.

VICE: On Monday reports circulated on social media that the Kremlin was going to disconnect from the global internet by Friday, March 11, based on two documents published by the Ministry of Digital Development.

The reports were inaccurate, based on misinterpretations of the documents, which were real.

These documents outlined a series of measures the Kremlin wants state-owned websites and online portals to implement by the end of this week in order to “coordinate actions to defend telecommunication services on the internet.”

Russia has been working on creating its own isolated Internet for some time — tests have been conducted since at least 2017. It’s probably best to think of it as a second Great Firewall — which severely limits what content goes in and out of Russia — rather than a “Runet” as some have called it.  Russia has only ever disconnected its internet in stages, rather than in its entirety. “There are a lot of people who are interested in internet measurement, who were waiting to see if that happened, but it didn’t,” he said. “They must have just had their fingers on hundreds of switches, as a way of convincing regulators that it’s possible if it’s needed.”

BBC:  Russia already has tech champions of its own, such as Yandex and Mail.Ru, but other local firms might also benefit. The country plans to create its own Wikipedia and politicians have passed a bill that bans the sale of smartphones that do not have Russian software pre-installed.

For an in-depth discussion of Runet, read Justin Sherman’s paper from last year, about Russia’s quest for “cyber sovereignty.”

Atlantic Council: In December 2018, a bill was introduced into the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, that moved to consolidate the Russian government’s control of internet architecture within Russia to ensure the internet could be isolated in the event of a security incident.3 These isolation measures had been discussed by the Kremlin for years as part of the Russian government’s drive to enact “cyber sovereignty” measures, or those that firmly project state borders over cyberspace. In other words, desires to isolate the Russian internet have a history.

What people in Russia can and can’t do

As of two days ago, NPR says Facebook is blocked in Russia, but Instagram and WhatsApp still work. Twitter told NPR that users are “having difficulty” accessing the service, suggesting some kind of throttling or content inspection. TikTok has suspended uploads in Russia while it absorbs a new law that makes use of the word “war” illegal.

NPR: It’s not easy to get a clear picture of what’s going on with tech companies in Russia. The Kremlin’s directives against online platforms can be vague or confusing and on-the-ground reports from Russia about how social media and other apps are working vary.

Several news services, such as the BBC, have been banned in Russia. Google’s YouTube is still working.  Telegram is working, too, and very popular in Russia. It was founded by Russian-born Pavel Durov, so there are suspicions that it can be used as a spy tool by Russian security services, but Durov wrote this week users’ right to privacy is “sacred.” And he is no fan of Russia’s methods.

Durov’s Telegram: Let me tell these people how my career in Russia ended.

Nine years ago I was the CEO of VK, which was the largest social network in Russia and Ukraine. In 2013, the Russian security agency, FSB, demanded that I provide them the private data of the Ukrainian users of VK who were protesting against a pro-Russian President.

I refused to comply with these demands, because it would have meant a betrayal of our Ukrainian users. After that, I was fired from the company I founded and was forced to leave Russia.

Of course, people in Russia who can convince the Internet they aren’t in Russia can still access these services through use of a VPN – a virtual private network. Despite many VPNs being illegal in Russia, that is apparently happening. Russian are racing to download software to evade censorship, and it appears to be working, at least for now.

Euronews:  VPN apps rose to the top of the App Store and Google Play in Russia last week as the government blocked social media sites. 

Top10VPN: VPN demand skyrocketed in Russia as authorities finally officially blocked Facebook and Twitter on March 4, surging to 1,033% higher than the daily average over the week prior to the invasion. Demand for VPN services was slightly higher still on March 5, peaking at 1,092% above the average.

As of March 8, Russian interest in VPNs remained very high at 842% higher than the pre-invasion baseline.

Finally, tech firms have moved to block or manage Russian propaganda being spread on their services. Twitter is trying to “de-amplify” links to articles being spread by state-controlled accounts — not easy because many of them now appear to come from individuals rather than Russian government accounts.

Politico: Twitter maintains a continually updated list of media organizations belonging to the Russian Federation and 20 other countries, and the new label will automatically apply to any tweeted URLs from a designated state-affiliated media website.

Meanwhile, Russia Today — RT — Russia’s cable-TV-news-style propaganda channel, has been “de-platformed” in much of the West, along with Sputnik, a similar service. RT America, the U.S.-based spinoff, has ceased operations. The EU banned RT and Sputnik last week. Google has placed a label on RT’s YouTube channel saying it is “funded in whole or part by the Russian government.” The channel can no longer monetize content. Both Apple and Google have removed RT apps.

My new podcast, “Defending Democracy from Big Tech” with Duke University is out. Listen, or learn more, at Duke’s website.

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