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The Digital Iron Curtain: How Russia’s Internet Could Soon Start To Look Like China’s

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The Digital Iron Curtain: How Russia's Internet Could Soon Start To Look Like China's

Like much else about the country, Russia’s internet has long straddled East and West.

Russian citizens, unlike their Chinese counterparts, have been able to access US tech platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, though they have been subject to censorship and restrictions — the defining feature of China’s internet model.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has increasingly isolated the country in recent days, could also prove to be the death knell for its presence on the worldwide web.

On Friday, as sanctions on Russia tightened and fighting in Ukraine continued to intensify, the Russian government said it had decided to block Facebook, citing the social network’s moves in recent days to impose restrictions on Russia-controlled media outlets.

While Facebook is by no means the largest platform in the country, blocking it may be a symbolic move to indicate that President Vladimir Putin’s government is prepared to go after big global names if they don’t toe the party line. (Instagram and WhatsApp, which are more popular in Russia and also owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, have not yet been blocked). Already, the country’s main telecom agency, Rozkomnadzor, is exerting pressure on Google (GOOGL) over what it terms “false” information, and has reportedly restricted Twitter (TWTR) as well. Other platforms are choosing to halt operations on their own.

READ ALSO: Over 40 Russian Diplomats, Families Leave US Due To War In Ukraine

Being cut off from Russia may not pose an existential threat to western tech platforms, some of which count their audience in the billions. But these moves have major implications for the ability of Russians to access information and express themselves freely. At a more fundamental level, it could also further accelerate the fracturing of the global internet as we know it.

A digital Iron Curtain
Many of Russia’s recent curbs on western tech platforms stem from a “sovereign internet” law enacted by Russia in 2019 that allows Roskomnadzor to more tightly control internet access in the country and potentially sever its online ties to the rest of the world altogether.

A law passed by Putin’s government on Friday further ratchets up the hostility to western services, making it a crime to disseminate “fake” information about the invasion of Ukraine, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The law prompted several news outlets, including CNN, to suspend their coverage from within Russia. TikTok also cited the new legal environment in announcing its decision to prevent new uploads and livestreams on its platform in Russia.

Other tech companies previously dialed back their presence in Russia amid the Ukraine conflict. Apple, Microsoft and Intel stopped all sales and restricted services in the country, while Google, Twitter, Netflix (NFLX), Spotify (SPOT) and Meta have blocked or restricted Russian state-run media outlets and, in some cases, halted advertising in the country altogether. Cogent Communications, one of the world’s largest internet traffic hosts, reportedly began cutting off some Russian service providers from its network on Friday.

It’s a perfect storm that could lead Russia to finally seal off its population from the rest of the global internet, much like China already has.

“The crisis is definitely a flashpoint, and likely a turning point, for western platforms operating in Russia,” Jessica Brandt, policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told CNN Business. “Moscow will no doubt continue pressing platforms to take down unflattering content, using all the leverage at its disposal. If the companies comply, public backlash elsewhere around the world will be intense,” she added.

The term used to refer to the two countries’ respective censorship apparatuses is also similar — where China has its Great Firewall, Russia’s has been dubbed a digital Iron Curtain. But while there are many similarities between the two, there are also some key differences that raise doubts about Russia’s ability to maintain its own standalone digital ecosystem.
Can Russia’s internet survive without western tech?

While China has spent decades building up its far-reaching censorship capabilities and has almost always blocked most western tech platforms from operating in the country, Russia is trying to make that switch while fighting a war. Russia’s ability to deploy the same level of technology as China is questionable, whether it’s making western platforms completely inaccessible or even censoring specific content and topics in real-time as the Chinese government frequently does.

“I think one nuanced difference between Russia and China is that China has the technical capability — their Great Firewall is very sophisticated and Russia doesn’t have as much of that,” said Xiaomeng Lu, director of the geo-technology practice for the Eurasia Group. “As much as they [Russia] want to do a comprehensive, full blockage, I think technically there are some challenges.”

Unlike China, millions of people in Russia have been accustomed to accessing global tech platforms, and completely cutting them off from those platforms is a step the Russian government under Putin has refrained from taking so far. But that is rapidly changing as the war and resulting western sanctions continue to escalate.

READ ALSO: US Orders Deployment Of Troops, Weapons In Europe To Support NATO

“Completely shutting it down, I think, risks some kind of backlash politically for the government,” said Lu. However, she adds, “that type of fear is losing out to the fear of longer-term regime survival.”

Russia’s dependence on outside technology has been on full display as foreign companies sever ties in response to western sanctions. Texas company Sabre and European counterpart Amadeus kicked Russia’s biggest airline, Aeroflot, off their global ticketing and reservation systems last week. The country’s central bank also announced that Apple Pay and Google Pay will no longer support cards of several Russian banks.

Russia does have alternatives to global tech platforms such as the search engine Yandex and the social network VK, which have tens of millions of users. But Lu says it is not “as vibrant an ecosystem as China,” which has several tech giants including Tencent (TCEHY), Alibaba (BABA) and Weibo (WB) that rival their Silicon Valley counterparts.

The Russian platforms are also facing their own collateral damage from the Ukraine invasion and resulting western sanctions. Yandex warned last week that the stock market meltdown from sanctions could prevent it from paying its debts, and Vladimir Kiriyenko, the CEO of VK’s parent company, is among the individuals sanctioned by the US government.

On Monday, Dutch investment firm Prosus announced it would write off its investment in VK — worth around $700 million — and asked its directors on the company’s board to resign.
While the Russian government appears more than ready to expel western tech platforms from its digital borders, the same can’t be said for the Russian people.

READ ALSO: China Warns US Over Oil, Gas Ban On Russia

“The Russian government stands to gain from Big Tech’s exit,” said Brandt. “It’s the Russian people that will lose enormously if they are stripped of access to non-government news and information and denied means to organize.”

There are already signs that Russians are seeking ways to evade internet blocks. Five of the top 10 downloaded apps in the country last week were virtual private network (VPN) apps that allow users to create more secure internet connection. Downloads of the most popular VPN apps during that period collectively spiked more than 1,300%, according to app tracking platform Sensor Tower.
One way or the other, the digital Iron Curtain appears to be dropping.

Lu admits it is hard to predict exactly how quickly a complete severing of Russia’s internet from the world will take place, but recent development indicate it could happen in “weeks or maybe even days.”

CNN

 

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Elon Musk Places Twitter Deal On Hold

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Elon Musk Places Twitter Deal Hold

By John Michael OjoW

World richest man, Elon Musk has announced a temporary suspension of his deal with Twitter.

The billionaire, who had earlier disclosed his intention to acquire the micro-blogging platform at an agreed price of $44 billion, on Friday cited issues of spam and fake accounts as the reason for the temporary suspension.

READ ALSO: Elon Musk Considers Buying Coca Cola To Remake With Cocaine

“Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users,” Musk tweeted.

The Tesla CEO, had maintained that one of his objectives would be to remove “spam bots” from Twitter.

Musk, 50, is also expected to serve as a temporary CEO of Twitter for a few months when the deal finally materialises.

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Why I Chose Elon Musk As Twitter’s Buyer – Dorsey

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Why I Chose Elon Musk As Twitter's Buyer - Dorsey

After reaching a deal with Elon Musk on the acquisition of Twitter, the founder of the microblogging app, Jack Dorsey, has given the reason for his decision.

Musk on Monday night reached an agreement to buy Twitter for approximately $44 billion.

The 50-year-old acquired the company at $54.20 a share, the same price named in his initial offer on April 14.

Giving reason for selling Twitter, Dorsey said Elon Musk is the only solution to achieving the purpose of Twitter being run for the public good.

According to him, he trusts Elon’s goal of creating a platform that is “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive”.

READ ALSO: Elon Musk Buys Twitter In $44b Deal

His tweets read, “I love Twitter. Twitter is the closest thing we have to global consciousness. The idea and service is all that matters to me, and I will do whatever it takes to protect both. Twitter as a company has always been my sole issue and my biggest regret. It has been owned by Wall Street and the ad model. Taking it back from Wall Street is the correct first step.

“In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter. It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company. Solving the problem of it being a company, however, Elon is the singular solution I trust. I trust his mission to extend the light of consciousness.

“Elon’s goal of creating a platform that is “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive” is the right one. This is also @paraga’s goal, and why I chose him.

“Thank you both for getting the company out of an impossible situation. This is the right path…I believe it with all my heart.”

Dorsey assured that Twitter would continue to serve the public conversation.

 

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Elon Musk Buys Twitter In $44b Deal

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Elon Musk Places Twitter Deal Hold

Elon Musk struck a deal on Monday to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion, in a victory by the world’s richest man to take over the influential social network frequented by world leaders, celebrities and cultural trendsetters.

Twitter agreed to sell itself to Mr. Musk for $54.20 a share, a 38 percent premium over the company’s share price this month before he revealed he was the firm’s single largest shareholder. It would be the largest deal to take a company private — something Mr. Musk has said he will do with Twitter — in at least two decades, according to data compiled by Dealogic.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Mr. Musk said in a statement announcing the deal. “Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

The blockbuster agreement caps what had seemed an improbable attempt by the famously mercurial Mr. Musk, 50, to buy the social media company — and immediately raises questions about what he will do with the platform and how his actions will affect online speech globally.

The billionaire, who has more than 83 million followers on Twitter and has romped across the service hurling gibes and memes, has repeatedly said he wants to “transform” the platform by promoting more free speech and giving users more control over what they see on it. By taking the company private, Mr. Musk could work on the service out of sight of the prying eyes of investors, regulators and others.

READ ALSO: Elon Musk,World’s Richest Person, Says He Doesn’t Own A Home

Yet scrutiny will likely be intense. Twitter is not the biggest social platform — it has more than 217 million daily users, compared with billions for Facebook and Instagram — but it has had an outsized role in shaping narratives around the world. Political leaders have used it as a megaphone, while companies, celebrities and others have employed it for image-making and brand building.

In recent years, Twitter has also become a lightning rod for controversy, as some users spread misinformation and other toxic content on the service. Former President Donald J. Trump frequently turned to Twitter to insult and inflame, before getting barred from the platform after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol last year. The company has repeatedly been forced to create policies on the fly to deal with unexpected situations.

In a statement, Bret Taylor, Twitter’s chairman, said the board had “conducted a thoughtful and comprehensive process to assess Elon’s proposal with a deliberate focus on value, certainty, and financing. The proposed transaction will deliver a substantial cash premium, and we believe it is the best path forward for Twitter’s stockholders.”

Mr. Musk himself has had a rocky relationship with online speech. This year, he tried to quash a Twitter account that tracked the movements of his private jet, citing personal and safety reasons. On Monday, he tweeted that he hoped his worst critics would remain on Twitter because “that is what free speech means.”

“Without any conditions for Musk to purchase Twitter, the platform’s community standards and recourse to ban users who violate those standards, Twitter could set a dangerous precedent for other social media companies to follow,” said Bridget Todd, director at UltraViolet, a women’s rights organization. “This is a massively slippery slope.”

Beyond speech issues, Twitter faces questions about its business. For years, the company has struggled to gain new users and to keep people coming back to the service. Its advertising business, which is the main way Twitter makes revenue, has been inconsistent. Twitter has not turned a profit for eight of the last 10 years.

How hands-on Mr. Musk plans to be at Twitter is unclear. Among the unanswered issues are who he might pick to lead the company and how involved he would be in running the service. In addition to running Tesla and SpaceX, Mr. Musk also has other companies, such as Neuralink, which aims to build a computer interface for the human brain, and the Boring Company, which makes tunnels.

Elon Musk has said he doesn’t trust Twitter’s current leadership to make necessary changes to promote free speech on the platform.

Elon Musk can at times be inscrutable, and his politics are elusive, which has made it somewhat difficult to determine exactly what the billionaire would do if he successfully acquired Twitter. But over the past weeks and months, as he neared Monday’s deal with the company, Mr. Musk has given more hints about what he would change about Twitter — in interviews, regulatory filings and, of course, on his personal Twitter account.

READ ALSO: Elon Musk Offers To Buy Twitter For $43b

Here are the main areas Mr. Musk could seek to address:

Free speech and content moderators. Mr. Musk has frequently expressed concern that Twitter’s content moderators go too far and intervene too much on the platform, which he sees as the internet’s “de facto town square.”

In the regulatory filing in which he announced his bid to buy Twitter, he wrote: “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”

He added that he didn’t trust the company’s current leadership to make the changes he saw as necessary and prioritize his ideas about free speech on the platform. “Since making my investment, I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form,” he wrote.

In a tweet on Monday, ahead of the announcement of his agreement with Twitter, Mr. Musk said he hoped even his “worst critics” continued to use the platform “because that is what free speech means.”

The Trump question. Mr. Musk has not commented publicly on how he would handle the former President Donald Trump’s banned Twitter account. But his free speech comments have stoked speculation that Twitter under his ownership might reinstate Mr. Trump, who was barred from the platform last year. After the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, Twitter said Mr. Trump had violated its policies by inciting violence among his supporters. Facebook also banned Mr. Trump for the same reason.

The former president, who was known for tweets that criticized opponents and sometimes announced policy changes, is also trying to get his own social media site off the ground. His start-up, Truth Social, has struggled to attract users, and the problem could get worse now that Mr. Musk has suggested changing content moderation rules on Twitter. Mr. Trump said in a recent interview that he probably wouldn’t rejoin Twitter if he could.

The algorithm. At a TED conference this month, he elaborated on his plans to make the company’s algorithm an open-source model, which would allow users to see the code showing how certain posts came up in their timelines.

He said the open-source method would be better than “having tweets sort of be mysteriously promoted and demoted with no insight into what’s going on.”

Mr. Musk has also pointed to the politicization of the platform before, and recently tweeted that any social media platform’s policies “are good if the most extreme 10 percent on left and right are equally unhappy.”

Who uses the platform and how. Before Mr. Musk offered to buy Twitter this month, he expressed concern about the relevance of the platform.

When an account posted a list of the 10 most followed Twitter accounts, including former President Barack Obama and the pop stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, Mr. Musk responded and wrote: “Most of these ‘top’ accounts tweet rarely and post very little content. Is Twitter dying?”

More recently, the Tesla chief executive promised in a tweet Thursday that he would “defeat the spam bots or die trying!”

Less moderation could conflict with new European regulations.
Image
The European Union headquarters in Brussels. Under a new law, Twitter and other social media companies with more than 45 million users in the E.U. will be required to conduct annual risk assessments about the spread of harmful content on their platforms.

Elon Musk made a centerpiece of his bid for Twitter the need to restrain what he sees as overly aggressive content moderation policies that limit what people can say on the site. He may face a major challenge fulfilling such a dream in Europe.

On Saturday, European policymakers reached an agreement on landmark new legislation, called the Digital Services Act, which requires social media platforms like Twitter to more aggressively police their services for hate speech, misinformation and illicit content.

Under the new law, Twitter and other social media companies with more than 45 million users in the E.U. will be required to conduct annual risk assessments about the spread of harmful content on their platforms and outline plans to combat the problem. If they are not seen as doing enough, the companies can be fined up to 6 percent of global revenue, or even be banned from the E.U. for repeat offenses.

The shifting laws in Europe illustrate the broader legal challenges Mr. Musk would inherit if he closes a deal to buy Twitter. Rather than having a single unified approach to policing its platform, the company has had to adjust based on the different laws where it operates. In Germany, Twitter removes flagged hate speech, racism and references to Nazism. In countries like Turkey, the company faces pressure to remove content critical of the ruling government. In Russia, the service has been largely blocked.

Tweets about Bill Gates may hint at Musk’s leadership style.
Over the weekend, as negotiations for his takeover of Twitter were approaching their final stages, Elon Musk took a shot at fellow billionaire Bill Gates in a series of high-profile tweets. The messages were a reflection of Mr. Musk’s freewheeling style on the social network, where he has more than 80 million followers, mixing serious messages and more sophomoric material.

Mr. Musk said Mr. Gates had taken a short position in Tesla’s stock, betting that it would fall. Mr. Musk was responding to a tweet that included screenshots of texts he apparently exchanged with Mr. Gates about potential philanthropic projects. Minutes later, he mocked Mr. Gates’s physical appearance in a tweet that got 1.1 million “likes.”

On Sunday, before a pivotal meeting between him and Twitter’s board, Mr. Musk tweeted that he was “moving on” from “making fun of Gates for shorting Tesla while claiming to support climate change action.”

The DealBook newsletter notes that the tweets may be a glimpse at how Twitter would run under Mr. Musk’s ownership. Critics say they were just the latest example of Mr. Musk using the platform, and his enormous following on it, as a bully pulpit, whether directed at billionaires or others.

Mr. Musk has said he wants Twitter to fulfill its “societal imperative” as a platform for free speech. But as DealBook has reported, that raises questions about what will happen to Twitter under his watch, given the tone he is setting and the problems that plagued the network’s previous chief executive, Jack Dorsey, before he embraced a more rules-based approach to content moderation.

Mr. Dorsey had said that he “didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences” of a more unfettered service.

The deal could be a threat to Trump’s social media venture.

The launch of Truth Social, former President Donald J. Trump’s social media project, has been marred by outages, long wait lists and underwhelming enthusiasm from users.

Truth Social is slow and clunky. Its audience participation remains low. Two top executives have left. And the merger that could bring $1.3 billion in desperately needed cash to former President Donald J. Trump’s social media project seems far from completion.

And that was before Elon Musk entered the picture, The Times’s Matthew Goldstein, Kenneth P. Vogel and Ryan Mac report.

Mr. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is the latest challenge for Trump Media & Technology Group’s flagship Truth Social app, which Mr. Trump has positioned as Twitter’s freewheeling conservative counterpart. Truth Social, which is available only for Apple devices, has 1.3 million installs, Sensor Tower, an app insights company, estimated. By comparison, Twitter has more than 200 million active users.

Mr. Musk announced a deal with Twitter Monday morning after announcing that he had lined up $46.5 billion in financing for his takeover bid. In recent weeks, Mr. Musk has said he would loosen the Twitter moderation policies that he has chafed under — and that famously led the service to bar Mr. Trump for inciting violence over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Although Mr. Musk has not said if he would allow Mr. Trump to return to the platform, his ideas for easing Twitter’s rules would further sap the appeal of Mr. Trump’s beleaguered start-up as it faces a regulatory investigation that could decide its future.

Trump Media declined to comment on Mr. Musk’s Twitter bid. Liz Harrington, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, pointed to a recent interview with Americano Media in which the former president said he “probably wouldn’t rejoin Twitter if he could.”

How Twitter employees are reacting to the potential Musk deal.
Twitter employees are searching for answers about how Elon Musk’s potential takeover could impact them and the company.

They said they were frustrated because they weren’t hearing much from management about what was going on with the takeover fight and what it meant for them, even as Twitter closed in on a deal with Mr. Musk on Monday. They asked their chief executive, Parag Agrawal. They asked Mr. Musk himself in questions sent on Twitter. Some even went to Charles Schwab, the financial firm that manages their stock options, for clarity about the impact a sale of the company would have on them.

But they were not getting very many answers, even as it became clear that they could soon find themselves reporting to Mr. Musk. This is according to 11 Twitter employees who asked to not be named in interviews with The Times’s Kate Conger because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Some employees vented their frustrations on Twitter on Monday, while others commiserated in private chats.

Employees said they worried that Mr. Musk would undo the years of work they have put into cleaning up the toxic corners of the platform, upend their stock compensation in the process of taking the company private, and disrupt Twitter’s culture with his unpredictable management style and abrupt proclamations.

But Mr. Musk also has fans among Twitter’s rank-and-file, and some employees have welcomed his bid.

. The New York Times

 

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