In a time of war, an open Internet is a lifeline, ensuring people can access and share information — about services, essential supplies, shelter food and water — and news in a fast-changing environment. It is, for many, the only means of communication, the only way of finding their loved ones or at least finding out whether they are safe.
Throughout the war, Ukrainians have been able to access the Internet, though some expressed concerns in early March that Russia could target Ukrainians’ access to information.
The war in Ukraine is a war against humanity, human dignity, human rights, and democracy. It is also an information war, one which the Russian Federation has brought upon its own citizens, which it has targeted with powerful, sustained propaganda, coinciding with work to establish an internal, ‘sovereign’ Internet cut off from the global network. If successful, Russians will be blocked from accessing information and reliable news, and civil society’s ability to communicate and engage with others, both inside and outside Russia, will be hampered. Anti-war and pro-democracy sentiments in Russia will be further stifled.
Calls to block Russian websites
Governments and tech companies must support an open Internet. But there have been some calls to limit Russia’s access to digital services, which would be detrimental to the work of civil society groups based in the country and prevent people from accessing vital, independent information.
On 28 February, 2022, Ukraine appealed to ICANN, the global non-profit organisation responsible for policies related to the domain name system (DNS), requesting that it block or suspend top-level domains operated within Russia. If ICANN had complied, Internet users would be blocked from any site registered on the .ru, .su and .рф domains, regardless of political affiliation. In an increasingly shrinking civic space, this would disproportionately affect the right to freedom of expression. Critics of the war that host or rely on these websites would find it harder to disseminate information countering Russia’s disinformation campaigns or organise protests in opposition to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
As the war got underway, the Russian Government stated it would limit access to Facebook in response to its addition of misinformation warning labels to government-run news pages, including news agency RIA Novosti, Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru. At the end of February, Russia pressured big tech to comply with its ‘landing law’, which requires large tech and social media companies to set up an office and representative based in the country.
A large part of the global community is demanding an end to the bloodshed in Ukraine and for human rights to be upheld. At this time, it is vital that people everywhere have access to an open, unfettered Internet: to communicate, to inform, and galvanise initiatives for peace and democracy.