The Invasion of Ukraine is Horrific. Cutting the Russian People Off From the Internet Could Make It Worse.

Rebecca MacKinnon / Mar 10, 2022

Rebecca MacKinnon is Vice President for Global Advocacy at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Pavel Ignatov/Shutterstock

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought a frontal attack not only on an entire nation-- but also on human rights and independent civic space in Ukraine, Russia and beyond. As experts have pointed out, the invasion has precipitated a series of events that threaten to further “splinter” the global internet, thereby endangering the ability of everyone, everywhere to share and access open knowledge across borders - including Wikipedia’s volunteer editors as well as everyone who depends on the website as a multilingual resource.

At this perilous moment, opponents of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seeking to stem the Russian government’s cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns must consider the technical and social complexities of the global internet — and avoid unintended consequences while acting decisively. That is why, today, the Wikimedia Foundation joined Access Now, Article 19, The Center for Democracy & Technology, and a number of other civil society organizations in publishing a letter calling on the Biden administration and other governments to carefully consider the full impact of limiting the Russian peoples’ access to the global internet. We urge policymakers to balance proposed technological sanctions alongside international human rights principles of universality, proportionality and freedom of expression, especially in the face of increasing disinformation and dwindling access to accurate information for people living in all areas affected by the current conflict, which includes Russia.

Russia’s independent media has been crushed. Censors have already blocked many internet news and social media sites, and threatened to block others including Wikipedia. The regime has leaned hard on disinformation as a long-standing tool of war, using it to divide, manipulate, and sow mistrust. Then last Friday the Russian Duma passed a new law criminalizing “fake” information about the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, underlying an intent to outlaw anything that contradicts government narratives. While some Russian citizens continue to exercise their free speech rights at great personal risk, many more have been forced into silence as they prioritize their families’ survival. We must not abandon them.

The U.S. government along with other NATO and EU member states have acted to punish Russia for its military aggression, including with economic sanctions. Meanwhile, organizations that support and provide internet architecture and services have reacted in different ways. Many technology companies, including those that offer internet platforms and services, have taken proactive steps to halt commercial services that amplify state-controlled media or otherwise benefit the regime. Yet others including a major U.S. backbone internet provider have cited U.S. sanctions as an important reason for severing ties with Russia. In contrast, some key organizations that coordinate global internet infrastructure– like ICANN, which coordinates the global internet addressing system– have rejected Ukrainian requests to cut Russia off completely.

Access to verified information not only influences public opinion; people depend on facts to make life-changing and even life-saving decisions. Independent journalists, human rights defenders, and a range of other civil society actors depend on email, messaging, video sharing and other free services offered by U.S. tech companies. And as security experts know well, commercial and technical isolation will not stop state-sponsored cyber-attacks or disinformation operations. The Russian regime has the technical means and friendly overseas locations from which to launch attacks.

As civil society makes clear in the letter published today, the Biden administration and other governments should be proactive to ensure that sanctions are accompanied by necessary clarifications and carve-outs for services that enable personal communications and sustain civic space. Without clear guidance, technology companies have a history of over-complying with sanctions. Useful precedents exist for reducing harm from previous sanctions regimes against Syria and Iran, where civil society and human rights defenders would otherwise have been cut off from email and messaging services that aren’t controlled by their own governments. The Obama Administration’s Treasury Department issued general licenses clarifying that companies can allow individuals from Iran and Syria to use certain free consumer-facing services. Advocacy groups have more recently called for further updates and clarification of those guidelines, underscoring how difficult it is to mitigate collateral damage from sanctions as technology and geopolitics evolve. Nonetheless the same type of proactive approach to preventing harm to civil society needs to be taken with Russian sanctions affecting technology products and services. The license should be accompanied by additional actions to prevent the further isolation of the Russian people from global information resources and communications.

If the intent is not only to punish the Russian government but to support those harmed by its invasion of Ukraine (including the Russian people), the international community must also ramp up financial and other types of support for free and independent sources of news and information in Ukrainian, Russian, and other languages spoken anywhere near the conflict zone. More support is also badly needed for digital security tools and related training resources, so that people have a better chance of accessing and contributing to these resources safely.

Finally, the time has come for governments to take responsibility for how their laws and regulations affect the privacy and security of internet users along with the very survival of independent civic space around the world. For example: without privacy-protecting technology and encryption the Ukrainian resistance or Russian anti-war activists face diminished chances of survival, let alone success. Yet, in the United States, the EARN IT Act recently passed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and while its aim is ostensibly to protect children, its impacts would undermine the encrypted services upon which Ukrainian fighters and Russian protesters currently rely to stay alive. We are also concerned that bills in the UK, Canada and Australia intended to address various online harms will do more harm than good due to overly-broad deletion and tracking requirements, based on far too narrow assumptions about how information is shared online and by whom.

Laws and regulations should be subject to human rights impact assessments to avoid curtailing fundamental freedoms online. The internet, in some ways like the global climate, is a complex ecosystem with many inter-dependencies. An action that benefits one category of people, or a particular place, can have unintended and even deadly consequences for people elsewhere.

We cannot take for granted that open societies, let alone global free knowledge movements like Wikipedia, will survive the political and geopolitical upheavals that our world now faces. If human rights and free societies are to prevail, we must all take responsibility for ensuring that people everywhere can access secure, globally interoperable, and open channels for sharing knowledge.


Rebecca MacKinnon
Rebecca MacKinnon is Vice President, Global Advocacy at the Wikimedia Foundation, working to promote and defend a legal and regulatory landscape essential to the future of free knowledge globally. Previously she was Founding Director of Ranking Digital Rights, a research program at New America that ...