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.
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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.
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“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.”
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I’ve Hired New Twitter CEO – Elon Musk
Elon Musk said on Thursday he has found a new chief executive officer (CEO) for Twitter, but did not name the person, while the Wall Street Journal reported that Comcast (CMCSA.O) NBCUniversal executive Linda Yaccarino was in talks for the job.
Musk said in a tweet: “Excited to announce that I’ve hired a new CEO for X/Twitter. She will be starting in ~6 weeks!”
Musk said he will transition to the role of chief technology officer of the social media platform within the next few weeks.
Musk, who took over as CEO of Twitter when he completed his $44 billion purchase of the company in October, said in December that he would step aside as CEO once he found “someone foolish enough to take the job.” He said that he would then run Twitter’s software and servers teams.
The WSJ cited people familiar with the situation in saying that Yaccarino was in talks for the top post.
Reuters reported after Musk’s tweet that Yaccarino could be his choice to lead Twitter, according to a Silicon Valley executive and a former Hollywood executive who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yaccarino, the top advertising sales executive at NBCUniversal, interviewed Musk at an advertising conference in Miami last month.
At the conference, Yaccarino encouraged the audience to welcome Musk with applause and lauded his work ethic.
“Many of you in this room know me, and you know I pride myself on my work ethic,” she said, adding, “Buddy, I met my match.”
Yaccarino joined NBCU in 2011, after 15 years at Turner Entertainment and has been credited with dragging the network’s ad sales operation into the digital future.
As broadcast television audiences migrated to streaming, she took to the stage at Radio City Music Hall last year to tell advertisers that their brand messages were not an afterthought.
Yaccarino did not respond to calls seeking comment on Thursday.
When asked for comment, an NBCUniversal spokesperson said, “Linda is in back-to-back rehearsals for the Upfront,” referring to a presentation NBCUniversal will host for advertisers in New York on Monday.
Yaccarino’s exit would be another big blow to the company after Comcast said last month that NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell was leaving after acknowledging an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company, following a complaint that prompted an investigation.
Musk has previously not named any prospective candidates.
Speculation was rife on Thursday among tech and media insiders and on Blind, an anonymous messaging app for tech employees.
Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, former YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and a top executive at Musk’s brain-chip startup Neuralink, Shivon Zilis, were among names that were being discussed.
Musk, who has come under fire from investors in his Tesla (TSLA.O) electric car company as being distracted by his attention to Twitter, said he will transition to the role of Twitter’s executive chair, along with the role of CTO, overseeing product, software and system operations.
Musk’s post about a new Twitter CEO came about 15 minutes before the close of Wall Street on Thursday, and Tesla shares closed 2% higher. The shares rose a further 1.6% in after-hours trade.
“The boat anchor called Twitter is loosened from Musk’s ankle. Now he can get back to spending more time creating value at Tesla,” said Craig Irwin, analyst at Roth MKM.
Musk has long said he intended to find a new leader for Twitter.
In a Twitter poll started by Musk in December, 57.5% users voted for him to step down as CEO of the social media platform.
The billionaire’s first two weeks as Twitter’s owner in October were marked by rapid change. He quickly fired Twitter’s previous CEO, Parag Agrawal, and other senior leaders, and then laid off half its staff in November.
Musk, a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” has said he took over Twitter to prevent the platform from becoming an echo chamber for hate and division.
He also said he would “defeat” spam bots on the platform, a key area of his tussle with Twitter’s board over his back and forth on the buyout of the company.
He said last month that Twitter was “roughly breaking even.”
Elon Musk Looks For Twitter CEO ‘Foolish Enough’ To Succeed Him
Elon Musk said late Tuesday that he plans on remaining as Twitter’s CEO until he can find someone willing to replace him in the job.
Musk’s announcement came after just over 57 per cent of responses indicated that he should step down from the role, in an unscientific poll the billionaire himself created and promised to abide by the past weekend.
“I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job!” Musk tweeted. “After that, I will just run the software & servers teams.”
Since taking over San Francisco-based Twitter in late October, Musk’s run as CEO has been marked by quickly issued rules and policies that have often been withdrawn or changed soon after being made public.
Twitter users vote yes to Elon Musk’s poll of whether he should step down as CEO
He has also alienated some investors in his electric vehicle company Tesla who are concerned that Twitter is taking too much of his attention.
“The first weeks of Mr. Musk’s Twitter ownership have raised questions about possible violations of securities or other laws, including whether Mr. Musk is funnelling Tesla resources into Twitter,” Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a letter, made public, to Robyn Denholm, Tesla’s board chair.
READ ALSO: Mass Sacking As Elon Musk Completes Takeover Of Twitter
Tumultuous first weeks Some of Musk’s actions have unnerved Twitter advertisers and turned off users. They include laying off half of Twitter’s workforce, letting go contract content moderators and disbanding a council of trust and safety advisors that the company formed in 2016 to address hate speech, child exploitation, suicide, self-harm and other problems on the platform.
Musk, who also helms the SpaceX rocket company, has previously acknowledged how difficult it will be to find someone to take over as Twitter CEO.
On Sunday, Twitter owner Elon Musk joined comedian Dave Chappelle on stage and was roundly booed. Musk responded on Twitter saying, “Technically, it was 90% cheers,” and that “It’s almost as if I’ve offended SF’s unhinged leftists … but nahhh.”
Musk has said that he’s politically a centrist, but the tweet is just one recent example of how he’s adopted partisan language in a social media culture war. Musk has distributed Twitter records that are supposed to reveal biased censorship, indulged in far-right talking points about COVID-19 and unbanned white nationalist accounts.
Bantering with Twitter followers last Sunday, he said that the person replacing him “must like pain a lot” to run a company that he said has been “in the fast lane to bankruptcy.”
“No one wants the job who can actually keep Twitter alive. There is no successor,” Musk tweeted.
As things stand, Musk would still retain overwhelming influence over platform as its owner. He fired the company’s board of directors soon after taking control.
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WhatsApp To Get Additional Features For Better Interaction
By John Michael Ojo
WhatsApp users will henceforth get more value for their money from the Meta-owned messaging platform following the launch of new features, including expansion of size of group video calls to accommodate 32 people, increasing the group size to 1024 from 512 and allowing users to carry out polls in group chats.
The announcement of the new features was made known on Thursday by Mark Zuckerberg.
“Today, we are excited to share our vision for a new feature we are adding to WhatsApp called Communities. Since WhatsApp launched in 2009, we’ve been focused on how we can help people have the next best thing to an in-person conversation when they want to talk to an individual or a group of friends or family,” Mr Zuckerberg said.
He added, “We also frequently hear from people who are using WhatsApp to communicate and coordinate within a community.”
The communities feature changes in admin controls, and introduces support for sub-groups and announcement groups. The feature will also allow 32-person voice and video calls, larger file sharing, emoji reactions, and polls.
READ ALSO: Users Stranded As WhatsApp Goes Down
When the feature is launched, admins of existing group chats will be able to transition their group to ‘Communities’ or opt to re-create their group as a ‘Community’.
Mr Zuckerberg noted that the encryption aspects of the ‘Communities’ feature was to “raise the bar for how organisations communicate with a level of privacy and security not found anywhere else.”
The ‘Communities’ feature has been in testing with over 50 organisations in 15 countries to gain early feedback.
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