Updated Mar 2, 2022 - Technology

Ukraine conflict splinters the global internet

Illustration of a split ethernet cable with forked connectors.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Moves to restrict Kremlin disinformation after Russia's invasion of Ukraine are further splintering the global internet even as they help stem the tide of propaganda.

Why it matters: A universal internet where every user can access the same messages and services has long been held up as a global ideal, but as democracy falters and governments limit usage, it looks to be receding out of reach.

  • "We don't have a free and open internet on the global level anymore," said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, speaking at a conference in Washington this week. "We just don't live in that reality."
  • "We are in a state of fragmentation," said Sean Heather, senior vice president of international regulatory affairs and antitrust at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The question is, how much more fragmented will we become?"

The big picture: Platforms face the unenviable task of removing misinformation from pro-Russian actors while also ensuring that people can use social media to find truthful information and speak out.

  • Social media allows people to vividly see the brutalities of the invasion — and also spread misinformation and outright propaganda.
  • During the crisis, tech companies have scrambled to limit the reach of official Russian accounts, add new labels and context to posts, disrupt inauthentic pro-Russia information campaigns and restrict ad-buying.

Context: Social media execs have warned against the dangers of a Balkanized internet for years as many nations — including Russia, China, India, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ethiopia and Turkey — have limited access.

  • In China, American apps like Facebook and Twitter are blocked, and the government routinely blocks information it doesn't want its citizens to read.
  • In India, Twitter has been asked to take down posts that criticize politicians.
  • Companies have been fined for not complying with local laws and local employees have been threatened.

Between the lines: Tech platforms have an obvious self-interest in keeping their business doors open around the globe. They also have begun to take their civic roles more seriously.

  • "Do these companies just pull out and basically cede the information environment to the authoritarian state? It's a really difficult situation that firms find themselves in," said Polyakova, who added that in Russia, YouTube is the only means of getting access to non-government news and information.

Meta's global policy head Nick Clegg stressed the importance of keeping its services available in Russia, telling reporters on a call Tuesday: "At the end of the day the most powerful antidote to propaganda is not only restricting its circulation but circulating the answer to it..."

  • "The thing that really undermines propaganda is counter-speech. It is free expression, in the end, that we should help win out."

In democracies like the U.S., it's easy to focus on the harms of Big Tech and look to the government for answers, Kate Klonick, an assistant law professor at St. John's University, told Axios.

  • But "what we're seeing with Russia and Ukraine is a return to some of the formative ideas around the power that the internet brings to individuals... in a lot of places outside the U.S., speech platforms actually enable democracy and are tools against authoritarian regimes."

Meanwhile: Authoritarian countries plow ahead with their own vision for the internet as the United States and Europe search for alignment on privacy, artificial intelligence, competition, content moderation and cybersecurity regulations.

  • Europe has moved forward aggressively on such rules in an attempt to be the global leader on tech and internet governance that protects user privacy. The U.S. hasn't moved as quickly, even as lawmakers across the aisle have shown aggressive interest in curbing misinformation and protecting user privacy.
  • When the U.S. and Europe aren't on the same page about these issues, it's harder for them to form a united front against authoritarian nations looking to boss tech companies around, Polyakova and others involved in EU-U.S. online policy talks speaking at the State of the Net conference in Washington this week said.
  • "If there's a silver lining, hopefully the unity we're seeing right now between Europe and the U.S. and the response to Russia will be channeled into into greater cooperation on this particular agenda as well," said Polyakova.

The bottom line: The global effort to limit Russian disinformation and penalize its government aims to bolster democracy, but cutting countries off from the network can also help dictators win.

Go deeper