Restricting the internet

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and the subsequent imposition of a wide array of sanctions by Western governments and companies, has raised the prospect of Russia essentially unplugging itself from the global internet.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has refused calls to revoke Russia’s top-level domains and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates. But many websites and online services have been blocked in Russia, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and around 400 news websites. Although much of the blocking is being instigated by the Kremlin, many tech companies are also suspending their Russian operations, either citing sanctions or ethical concerns.

Russian citizens are able to evade many of the geographical blocking efforts by using VPNs. But this method of accessing the global internet is also in doubt, as a result of VPN services being blocked themselves – or else due to the inability of Russian users to pay for VPN services due to the suspension of credit cards and payment systems such as PayPal or Google Play.

But most tech-savvy internet users will still generally be able to circumvent geo-blocking, using free VPN software, Tor and P2P services, proxy servers and DNS tools. It’s very difficult for a state to completely shut off the international internet, without physically pulling the plug.

It’s worth noting the valiant efforts of the BBC to keep news flowing to Russian citizens by signposting them to its presence on the Dark Web – as well as launching two new shortwave frequencies should the Kremlin actually decide to pull the plug.

Disconnection from global internet

Russia implemented legislation in late 2019, known as the “sovereign internet” law, designed to allow the state to disconnect the country’s internet from the global internet. It has since run several tests whereby it has physically disconnected its own networks from the wider global infrastructure, essentially creating a Russian intranet known as “RuNet”.

RuNet is likely to work more like North Korea’s internet, which is shut off from the outside world, rather than the Chinese internet which relies on the Great Firewall to prevent its citizens from accessing a range of websites and internet services.

According to Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN, it’s unlikely that Russia will physically disconnect their internet:

“While Russia is certainly capable of cutting itself off from the global internet, the economic and social cost would be grave. What’s more likely is that the Kremlin tries to copy China’s ‘great firewall’ and strictly control all internet traffic coming in and out of the country.”

But in fact, regimes cutting off internet access for citizens – usually on a temporary basis – is actually more common than many people realise. Libya, Egypt and Syria have all shut down the internet in the past. More recently, Belarusian dictator instigated an internet blackout in an attempt to stifle civil unrest.

Firewalls and walled gardens

Most countries which restrict web access for citizens tend to rely on blocking access to websites and services rather than physically shutting down or unplugging the internet. The best example of this is the aforementioned Great Firewall of China which employs a range of filtering techniques, as well as blocking certain VPN protocols.

It’s worth noting that internet restriction is not always a result of the decisions taken by governments. Many companies use geo-blocking to either prevent citizens in certain jurisdictions from accessing their websites – or else forcing them to use a version of their websites specific to their country. For example, Netflix has different content for its American and British subscribers. And many US websites blocked their websites from EU citizens following the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Furthermore, in some countries many people are reliant upon free internet services – such as those provided by Meta’s Free Basics program. In this case, Meta has struck deals with mobile providers to offer free access to a limited version of the internet which is centred around Facebook and other Meta services. This “walled garden” type of internet was eventually banned in India, but it still operates in many other jurisdictions.

What do lawyers need to know?

Internet access is currently in jeopardy as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, both for Russian citizens who are being blocked from accessing a vast array of websites and services, and also for Ukrainian citizens due to physical damage of telecommunications infrastructure as a result of bombing, in addition to cyberattacks.

Elon Musk has been trying to help maintain the integrity of the Ukrainian internet through his Starlink technology consisting of portable terminals which connect directly to satellites and deliver internet access to anyone within range of a terminal.

Lawyers with offices or clients in Russia or Ukraine, or who represent international clients in other volatile regimes, should ensure they are aware of the risks of sudden online restrictions, blackouts or even potential disconnection from the global internet. In particular, lawyers need to consider:

  • How they will communicate with clients and colleagues in a jurisdiction which has been cut off from the global internet, in the absence of online methods such as email, Teams and Zoom.
  • How best to advise clients who suffer any legal repercussions which stem from a major disruption to internet services, eg in the case of business clients who provide online services.

Finally, even where the internet has not been restricted, it’s important that lawyers assess the risks surrounding state surveillance of communications. This is particularly pertinent in the case of insecure email communication with clients in certain regimes where messages are routinely intercepted by security services for political purposes. It’s always a good idea to use end-to-end encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp or Signal as a matter of course.

Further reading

Russian internet users are learning how to beat Putin’s internet crackdown – CNN

The inside story of Facebook’s biggest setback – The Guardian

Russia-Ukraine: Is internet on verge of break-up? – BBC

Russians Need VPNs. The Kremlin Hates Them – Wired

RuNet Law Comes Into Force: What Is Next – Latham & Watkins

What is the Deep Web? – infolaw

Alex Heshmaty is technology editor for the Newsletter. He runs Legal Words, a legal copywriting agency based in the Silicon Gorge. Email LinkedIn alexheshmaty.

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