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The battle to keep Russia’s internet free

International sanctions have seen companies including big tech firms halt operations in Russia

Western powers have seized the yachts of Russian oligarchs and booted Russian banks out of the international system in response to the Ukraine invasion, but sanctions that limit access to the internet are proving highly divisive.

Ukraine has called loudly for a widespread boycott and Kyiv has even pushed for Russia to be cut off from the world wide web.

Critics say all of this could well marginalise opponents of the Kremlin, boost the dominance of state media and even lead Russia to try to develop a sealed-off, local version of the internet.

A Kremlin crackdown on journalists has already drastically reduced independent sources of information, forcing many media outlets to close or scale back their operations.

But with web access being squeezed from the inside and the outside, many experts are now calling for the West to take a different approach.

“Sanctions should be focused and precise,” some 40 researchers, activists and politicians wrote in an open letter last week.

The letter called for military and propaganda outlets to be targeted.

Ukraine called global regulator ICANN to do just this on February 28, but the request was rejected.

For Micek, it is simply “counterproductive to the effort to win hearts and minds and spread democratic messages”.

Natalia Krapiva, a lawyer with Access Now, highlights that people exposed to those narratives may well conclude that “Russia is trying to help Ukrainians and is protecting itself”.

– Fears of ‘splinternet’ –

China has already built a vast system of control around its internet, dubbed the “Great Firewall”, which in effect cuts it off from the rest of the world.

“The Russians are quite capable of building a national internet,” says Pierre Bonis of Afnic, the association that manages the .fr domain.

“We must not break the universality of the internet, even if the Russians do unacceptable things,” he says.

Micek points out that Iran has spent a decade building its own controlled, censored version of the web.

And he can see a similar process at play with Russia.

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