Biden must safeguard Russian internet access, civil society warns

Civil society groups are urging the Biden administration to safeguard internet providers in Russia from sanctions, warning that damaging web access would isolate dissidents and strengthen the Kremlin.

Sanctions are fueling an exodus of internet companies from Russia, such as Cogent Inc. and Lumen Technologies Inc., wrote groups including the Center for Democracy & Technology, which receives funding from many technology giants. Microsoft Corp. and NetScout Systems, Inc. have also halted much of their Russia-based business, citing sanctions.

To preserve web access in Russia, the Office of Foreign Asset Controls should formally authorize U.S. services, software, and hardware necessary for the internet, the groups wrote. Similar provisions have been made in past sanctions campaigns in Iran, Cuba, and Syria. The Wikimedia Foundation, Access Now, and Committee to Protect Journalists were among the 41 groups to sign the letter.

“Through these actions, OFAC and the U.S. government set a precedent: it is within the public interest to ensure that access to digital platforms and modern communication technologies are, and remain, unaffected by sanctions,” reads the open letter addressed to President Joe Biden.

Not only would web restrictions further isolate dissidents, it would strengthen the increasingly-censored Russian internet and media apparatus, the letter continues. Twitter Inc., Meta Inc.’s Facebook, and the BBC are among the sites blocked in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. In total, almost 150 news sites have been blocked in the country since February 24, according to Top10VPN.com.

For now, Russians are turning to virtual private networks, or VPNs, a kind of encryption software used to get around content censorship. Psiphon, a service which has received funding from the U.S. government, has seen daily users spike nearly six-times since the invasion.

Similar spikes in use of Psiphon have been observed after the Cuban government blocked many sites during protests last year. The service is also popular in Myanmar and Iran, where the internet is highly restricted.

As many businesses weigh their futures in Russia, it’s crucial the U.S. releases clearer sanction guidance for technology companies soon, “rather than waiting until after individuals in Russia are cut off from these vital services,” the letter said.

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