The US Treasury Department tries to avoid the Russian “splinternet”

As the Russian military offensive in Ukraine rages on, many internet companies and providers have withdrawn their services from Russia in solidarity with Ukrainians. Additionally, many countries have implemented or are considering sanctions that may interfere with Russian Internet access. However, the restriction of Internet services in Russia has an unintended consequence: the further isolation of Russian citizens and media from the free flow of truthful information online.

To combat this, the US Treasury Department extended a blanket license to exempt certain services “incidental to the exchange of communications over the Internet” from US sanctions against Russia, including “instant messaging, videoconferencing, chat and email, social media, photo, movie and document sharing, web browsing, blogging, web hosting and domain name registration services[.]”

The general license serves an important purpose by helping to avoid a Russian “splinternet” – an internet closed to outside providers and services, which is easier for the state to control. The Great Chinese Firewall is often cited as an example of the concept.

Keeping internet communication channels open is particularly important for journalists, as a number of advocacy groups pointed out in a letter to the government asking for a blanket license. As the letter notes, journalists and independent media depend “on access to secure and reliable information technology to document events in contested areas and to enable people to circumvent state controls over information”.

Treasury’s blanket license reflects sensitivity to unintended consequences of Russian sanctions – that restricting the Internet in Russia to Russian service providers and content creators could prevent the Russian population from knowing “what was being done in their name” , as the Internet Society has warned.

The blanket license has taken on added importance in light of the Russian government’s aggressive shutdown of the free press within its borders. Virtually all independent news outlets, including longtime Moscow Echo radio station and TV Rain, have shut down their operations in Russia under threat of disinformation lawsuits.

One of the last remaining publications covering the war, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, suspended operations until the end of the war after receiving a second warning from Russian technology and communications regulator Roskomnadzor. The last edition of the newspaper covering the invasion sold out within hours of publication. While not a substitute for an independent press in Russia, the general license does at least ensure that Russia’s war response will not further isolate the country from outside information in counterproductive ways.

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The Reporters Committee for Press Freedom’s Technology and Press Freedom Project uses integrated advocacy – combining law, policy analysis and public education – to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and freedom of the press, such as journalist-protection of source confidentiality, electronic surveillance law and policy, and regulation of content online and in other media . TPFP is headed by Committee of Reporters attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Grayson Clary, Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Legal Fellow, and Gillian Vernick, Technology and Press Freedom Project Legal Fellow.

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