Content note: The following post contains references to violence.
This post was first published on March 2, 2022, and was periodically updated until August 18, 2022. For more information and updates on the status of digital human rights of people in, around, and affected by the situations in Ukraine and Russia, visit Access Now’s Russia-Ukraine focus page.
August 15, 2022: Russian authorities extend internet control at home and in Ukraine
Access Now condemns Russia’s continued occupation of digital space in Ukraine’s Kherson region, as reported by the New York Times and Kentik. Russia is also blocking access to Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, as well as to Ukrainian news and independent media in the region. Further escalating control, Russian authorities have shut off Ukrainian cellular networks, forcing Kherson’s residents to use Russian mobile service providers, enabling them to surveil, intercept, and block Kherson’s residents communications with the outside world. Russia previously used a similar playbook in the occupied Crimea.
Back home, on August 6, an independent Russian media outlet, Mediazona, reported that Wagner, a notorious Russian paramilitary group, is recruiting people incarcerated in prison to fight in Ukraine. At least one of the people interviewed by the media reported that the prison communication service, Zonatelecom, was shut down, preventing them from communicating with their families about the recruitment.
July 25, 2022: Russia extends its heavy censorship to the occupied territories
Since July 6, Russian-installed authorities have blocked access to Instagram and YouTube in the occupied Kherson region. On July 22, the Google search engine was disabled on the pretext of “openly propagating terrorism and violence against Russians” in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson regions.
Occupying authorities also claim to have shut down Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube in Zaporizhzhia region.
The images below were last verified on July 25.
Image source: Holod Media
July 13, 2022: UN condemns tech companies’ withdrawal from Russia
UN human rights experts, including Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, expressed concern over technology companies withdrawing from the Russian market “leaving human rights defenders and civil society organizations with little access to the information and communication infrastructure vital for their work.” “Businesses should be mindful of human rights throughout their operations and try to help Russian human rights defenders and civil society organizations avoid complete isolation,” the experts said.
July 6, 2022: Digital for Freedom Initiative should put human rights first
As Ukraine invites international actors to help transform the country into a digital democracy through the Digital for Freedom initiative, it is vital authorities consult with civil society to ensure the human rights of people online are protected. Any new regulations and reforms must adhere to human rights and data protection standards, and special consideration must be made when working with vulnerable war-affected populations.
The initiative is based on nine separate projects, including e-government, e-currency, cybersecurity, e-education, e-health, elimination of the digital divide, digital customs, and the use of artificial intelligence in commercial courts — all with the potential to promote, or jeopardize, human rights.
Jul 2, 2022: Access Now urges Ukrainian authorities to #KeepItOn in occupied territories
People in occupied Ukrainian territories are reportedly experiencing difficulties accessing the internet due to Ukrainian operators blocking their own equipment, leaving the occupying Russian authorities with a need to supply their own hardware.
Ukraine has acknowledged that its special and intelligence services periodically disable the fiber optic cable, earlier extended from Crimea to Kherson by Russian occupiers, resulting in an unstable connection.
In order to stay connected, residents of Kherson are forced to use unbranded mobile phone SIM cards with Russian numbers that are circulated in the region by the occupying authorities. However, Ukraine officials believe that Russia will soon face difficulties issuing SIM-cards due to sanctions.
Ukrainian authorities must uphold their commitment to not restrict mobile communication services and internet access for people in Ukraine, regardless of their location within the country, and not to plunge occupied territories into darkness by disabling communication infrastructure for already extremely vulnerable populations.
We reiterate our warning against counterproductive sanctions that further isolate people in Russia or on the territories occupied by Russia from the free flow of information and ideas online.
July 1, 2022: Russia continues to squeeze out international communication platforms
Russia is attempting to squeeze out international companies to establish complete control over the flow of information in the country.
While major social media are blocked in Russia, authorities are now urging governmental officials to switch from the few remaining international message and video conference platforms like Telegram, WhatsApp, Google Docs, Zoom, and Skype to Russian analogue versions, such as Vkontakte. In the past, the Russian government similarly recommended people switch to Russian platforms, such as VK and Odnoklassniki instead of the blocked Instagram. However, these services are highly controlled by Russian authorities, and expose people who use them to censorship and surveillance.
Meanwhile, tech platforms such as Google, Meta, Twitter, Telegram, Airbnb, Twitch, and Pinterest, that refuse to comply with governmental orders to localize user data and delete content, continue to be subject to heavy fines.
People in Russia now have even fewer resources to circumvent the censorship as Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s mass media regulator, is blocking new VPNs on a regular basis.
“It’s so very important for Russians to be connected to the whole world wide web, to keep resistance going,” Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now, told AFP, regarding the efforts by the U.S. government and tech companies to provide free and secure VPNs to keep Russian people connected. “All kinds of initiatives are happening and to keep them alive you need the internet because you can’t gather in person, or because activists are scattered around the world.”
June 30, 2022: Cyber warfare further exposed
Microsoft has issued a report, Defending Ukraine: Early Lessons from the Cyber War, revealing details about Russian network penetration activities amongst allied governments, non-profits, think tanks, humanitarian organizations, IT companies, and energy and other critical infrastructure suppliers inside and outside Ukraine.
Microsoft’s findings confirm that Russian missile attacks on governmental data centers and other servers were not accidental as many once suspected, but were a part of a cyber strategy that includes at least three distinct, coordinated elements: destructive cyberattacks within Ukraine; espionage outside Ukraine; and cyber influence operations — such as disseminating disinformation — targeting people around the world.
According to Ukrainian authorities, Russia has implemented 796 cyber attacks since the invasion, hitting governmental, military, finance, energy, transport infrastructure, and telecommunications sectors as main targets.
Access Now joins Microsoft’s call for a coordinated and comprehensive strategy to strengthen defenses against the full range of cyber destruction, espionage, and influence operations, and urges the international community to establish and uphold clear people-first cybersecurity standards.
June 23, 2022: Bypassing internet Censorship
“Our partners in Russia — human rights and freedom of expression organizations — do believe it’s going to get worse and worse,” Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now, told DW in regards to the growing censorship and website blocking in Russia. “And that just means we all have to adjust to this new reality, not give up, and not say ‘everything is blocked, why bother?’ … We should try to keep getting the information out to Russians.”
June 7, 2022: Kherson in the dark
The city of Kherson and Kherson region continues to be plunged into darkness through ongoing internet shutdowns.
We, again, call on Russian authorities to immediately stop their interference.
“Sandvine has refused to learn a lesson from Belarus, and has decided to sell its technology to the Russian government, where the technology is likely implicated in helping Putin’s regime censor independent sources of information, leading up to the war in Ukraine,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now. “As sanctions against Russia and Belarus are mounting, the first companies that should face accountability are companies that help silence anti-war voices and facilitate repression — the U.S. government must start with Sandvine.”
The UK government has listened to civil society’s assertion that blocking the flow of information in and out of Russia will strike a blow to the rights of millions affected by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
“Keeping people online, and news media in operation, will do more to advance democracy and strengthen civic actors than a wholesale ban on commercial services would accomplish,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now.
On Monday, May, 30, the UK government took action to ensure people in Russia retain access to the global internet and news media services can still operate in the country, issuing general licence INT/2022/1875276 for Continuation of Business and Basic Needs for Telecommunications Services and News Media Services.
May 20, 2022: Civil society coalition to the UK government: don’t boot Russians offline via sanctions
Human rights and press freedom organizations in the UK and globally have called on the UK government to ensure its sanctions on Russia and Belarus protect digital rights.
A coalition of groups led by Access Now published a letter to Boris Johnson’s government and U.K. sanctions authorities on Friday, urgently requesting a new “general license” that enables U.K. businesses — and those with U.K. operations — to maintain services that help people access the internet in Russia and Belarus.
May 13, 2022: Russia threatens and blackmails Ukrainian internet service provider
Russia threatens internet service providers, while exerting propaganda and stretching control over the flow of information in the occupied territories. Today, “Status,” a private ISP in Kherson, Ukraine — which noticed Russian military attempts to reroute internet traffic to the Russian Crimean network earlier this week — was blackmailed and intimidated by Russian guards for refusing to connect. The office’s invaders promised to seize the company’s equipment if they did not cooperate. We call on the international community to take swift action.
May 10, 2022: Russia attacks Ukrainian infrastructure
Attempts by Russia to limit the information flow to, and among, residents of occupied territories are continuing. According to Ukrainian authorities, Russian troops plunged both the city of Kherson and Kherson region into darkness for three days after they deliberately damaged a fiber optic network. Russian authorities have also reportedly re-routed internet traffic to connect Ukrainian internet users to the Russian network, which seeks to exert control over Ukraine’s internet space, and make social networks like Instagram and Facebook, already blocked in Russia, unavailable in these areas.
Meanwhile, the local Russian version of YouTube, RuTube, is unavailable after massive cyberattacks on the platform. Several Russian TV channels have also been hacked, featuring a message that blames Russia for atrocities committed in Ukraine.
May 4, 2022: TikTok a tool for propaganda in Russia
While TikTok is technically still functioning in Russia, there is no access to content from outside the country. The platform, however, is being utilized as a tool for pro-war propaganda.
“It doesn’t seem like [TikTok’s] concern was for the users … it seems like they were more concerned with their own potential liability or reputation. TikTok [claims] that they are independent, but … we have seen them implementing censorship of pro-opposition content, protests-related content in Russia, anti-government content. This seems to be more in line with them wanting to follow what [the] government in Russia is asking them to do,” Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now, told Coda Story.
Launched today, Access Now’s new report, The return of digital authoritarianism: internet shutdowns in 2021, sheds light on Russia’s further down sliding into digital authoritarianism over the course of last year, exploring how previous actions have led to today’s reality of blocked Facebook, instagram, and Twitter, and, most recently, the removal of references to Ukraine and Kyiv in textbooks.
“Russia’s escalated censorship in 2021 set the stage for what we’re witnessing in 2022,” Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now, told Bloomberg.
April 22, 2022: Benefits and risks as Starlink expands into Ukraine
Starlink, through 10,000 stations of SpaceX’s satellite internet network, is helping Ukrainian critical infrastructure facilities to stay connected, and now it is opening a representative office in the country.
The Ukrainian government has opened up the use of SpaceX technology to everyone in Ukraine, whereas before it was only accessible to the military.
While Starlink’s expansion could improve connectivity for millions of people in the country, the satellite signals can be detected and potentially targeted by enemy forces. “We need companies to exercise due diligence on impact and we need to work with local actors like civil society organizations and digital security experts,” warned Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now.
April 19, 2022: Ukraine is crowdsourcing digital evidence of war crimes
Digital technologies are powerful tools for evidence collection. In the face of cyberattacks and internet disruptions, people in Ukraine, with the support of Ukraine’s Digital Ministry, are working to document and catalogue crimes committed by Russian troops through chatbots, apps, and websites.
“Since the start of the invasion, Ukrainian officials, lawyers and human-rights groups have scrambled to design new ways to catalogue and verify reams of video, photo and eyewitness accounts of criminal behavior by Russian forces,” Vera Bergengruen wrote for TIME.
However, social media companies need to adjust their content moderation policies in order to preserve material with evidential value, and guarantee that eyewitness accounts will not be blocked for sharing content with violent elements.
Through an open statement issued last week, Access Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and nearly 30 other international human rights and civil society organizations reiterated that social media platforms have a duty to ensure that people have access to the free flow of life-saving information in Ukraine and in other crisis zones around the globe.
April 14, 2022: Cyberattacks on Ukraine continue
Cyberwarfare has real-life consequences, and Access Now condemns Russian malware attacks on critical communication and energy infrastructure in Ukraine. This targeting has the potential to exacerbate the crisis created by Putin’s invasion, and we call on the international community to establish and uphold clear, people-first cybersecurity standards.
Since February 24, Ukraine has suffered through 362 cyberattacks. While most of them continue to target the infrastructure of government and local authorities, and security and defense organizations, we are seeing an increase in attempts to interrupt the work of the telecoms and energy sectors.
WIRED reported that Russia’s Sandworm hacking group recently attempted a third blackout in Ukraine, years after its historic cyberattacks on the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and 2016. Malware, inserted in the IT system of a high-voltage electrical substation in Ukraine months ago, was due to be activated late on April 8. The attack could have left two million people living in the region without energy.
To shield the country from the storm of cyberattacks, Ukraine has been engaging with volunteer international professionals to legally test information systems for the presence of vulnerabilities, also known as a Bug Bounty program.
April 13, 2022: TikTok created an alternate universe just for Russia
TikTok is blocking people in Russia from seeing any posts from outside the country, including from Ukraine.
“It’s an unusual approach,” Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now, told the Washington Post of TikTok’s ban on outside content. “It’s unclear, and it’s not justifiable. People have a right to access to information, and not just information that the government wants them to hear.”
April 11, 2022: U.S. Treasury moves to keep Russians connected despite sanctions, while Russian regulator Roskomnadzor targets Google
Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a General License to exempt internet communications services, and related software, hardware, or technologies, from U.S. sanctions against Russia. This decision comes in direct response to a coalition letter, led by Access Now and the Wikimedia Foundation, that calls on U.S. President Biden and his administration to ensure the people of Russia and Belarus are not cut off from the internet.
This decision will make it possible for Russian independent media, human rights defenders, and anti-war protesters who depend on U.S. communication technologies to continue their critical work safely.
“U.S. internet communication technologies are key for human rights defenders and independent media to report on and fight Russian and Belarusian governments’ aggression in Ukraine,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now.
Meanwhile, Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s mass media regulator, has banned Google from advertising Google Search, Google Play, Google Chat, YouTube, YouTube Music, and Gmail in the country. The agency accused Google of “disseminating fakes about the special military operation, of discrediting the Russian army and of promoting the activities of extremist organizations on Youtube.”
April 6, 2022: Disinformation on TikTok is continuing to flow
As falsified war videos and misleading information continue to circulate on Tiktok, the platform should be doing everything in its power to flag Russian propaganda and disinformation.
“They’ve promised to double their efforts and partner with content checkers, but I’m not sure they are taking this obligation seriously,” Anastasiya Zhyrmont, Regional Outreach Coordinator (Eastern Europe & Central Asia) told AFP.
April 4, 2022: Social media algorithms are dictating what people can and cannot see in and from Russia and Ukraine
Evidence of atrocities committed in Bucha and Irpen has shaken the international community. Terrifying photos and videos from these Kyiv suburb cities freed from Russian occupation were shared across various media outlets and social networks. Documented killings of civilians, traces of torture, pillaging of civilian property and possessions, and other war crimes flooded Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, shining the international spotlight on the horrors unfolding. But then, Instagram began blocking content.
Instagram algorithms hid several hashtags such as #Bucha, #BuchaMassacre, #GenocideOfUkrainians, #RussianWarCrime, and the popular #StandWithUkraine, out of supposed concerns that corresponding content might breach Community Standards. The temporary restrictions were soon lifted, making all the hashtags active again, but many users’ posts were not recovered. This is not good enough.
Meanwhile, in Russia, TikTok algorithms are feeding Kremlin propaganda to users, regardless of preferences and subscriptions. Even newcomers to the service are receiving falsified information about the war in Ukraine in their lists of recommendations within 40 minutes after registration. Earlier TikTok announced that it suspended livestreaming and new content to video functions in Russia and will prioritize combating misinformation.
We call on social media platforms to develop partnerships with fact-checking organizations and engage in ongoing and meaningful human rights due diligence while dealing with harmful disinformation, propaganda of war, hatred, or promotion of violence.
March 31, 2022: Escalating cyberattacks on Ukraine’s communications infrastructure violate international law
From the beginning of this year, individuals, organizations, and a variety of institutions in Ukraine have faced increasing incidents of organized and persistent cyberattacks. Reports have now confirmed a significant, escalated cyberattack in the form of a sophisticated distributed denial of service (DDoS) operation targeting a major internet service provider in Ukraine — Ukrtelecom — resulting in a disruption in internet access across the country.
This new attack — described by some media reports as one of the most significant and intense cyberattacks on Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s aggression — is deeply alarming. Civil society, public service institutions, and other services relied upon by countless individuals at risk in an active conflict zone have been regularly subject to persistent cyberattacks, a form of cyber shelling that often goes unnoticed while attention focuses on the more sophisticated cyber weapons that some expected to be deployed in a major geopolitical conflict. We also see a persistent trend of cyberattacks against broadcast and telecommunications service providers, resulting in disruption and shutdown of internet access for individuals and critical infrastructure. Previous attacks on satellite internet services resulted in disruptions to communications across Europe, beyond Ukraine itself.
Recent missile attacks on broadcast communications infrastructure killed engineers and illustrated Russia’s attempt to lay siege to the flow of information in Ukraine. Attacks like these on critical infrastructure obstruct humanitarian information and should be seen as measures to execute crimes against humanity. The use of cyberattacks to shutdown the internet and impede the communications infrastructure that global networks depend upon is likewise unacceptable. The intentional targeting of communications networks through the use of cyber weapons cannot ever be regarded as acceptable. It is a direct affront to protected human rights and increases global cyber insecurity. It represents irresponsible state cyber behavior at its worst if such actions have been directly perpetrated or allowed to be perpetrated by any government, which requires accountability and consequences under international law.
March 29, 2022: Don’t help Putin and Lukashenko silence anti-war voices
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko have tried and failed to prevent their citizens from accessing the outside world through social media platforms like Facebook and Telegram for years. Today, as Putin leverages his influence over Lukashenko in support of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some Western companies and media organizations are unwittingly helping to silence those speaking out in opposition. Here are four ways to protect anti-war voices in Russia and Belarus.
March 23, 2022: Cyberattacks continue to target civil society across Ukraine
Since February 15, Ukraine has suffered through over 3000 distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, while Amazon Web Services has reportedly detected numerous instances of malware targeting charities, NGOs, and other aid organizations providing relief to Ukraine. Civil society has been reporting increases in hacking and phishing, as well as arrests and confiscation of devices belonging to activists. New malicious software has also been detected by CERT-UA, a Ukrainian governmental body responsible for cybersecurity, including wiper malware CaddyWiper and SPECTR.
Access Now calls for the immediate end to the escalating aggression, and supports the tireless efforts of the self-organizing IT-community in Ukraine, who are working to help protect the country on the cyber-frontline. Access Now is regularly updating our digital security tips (pinned above), and the 24/7 Digital Security Helpline continues to offer real-time, direct technical assistance and advice to civil society groups and activists, media organizations, journalists and bloggers, and human rights defenders affected by the invasion.
March 22, 2022: Russia is inching closer to a sovereign internet
WhatsApp, Telegram, and YouTube remain accessible in Russia, but the vast majority of other international platforms — most of which have locally-built alternatives — are still blocked.
As reported in Wired, the Kremlin appears to be creating a system of parallel apps to replace Big Tech options. “I think [events in Ukraine] might push Russia towards actually implementing this sovereign internet and creating their own alternatives, even though they are of course not going to be as good,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now.
We oppose a consolidated sovereign internet that would further reduce already heavily-constricted online civic space in Russia.
March 21, 2022: Russia labels Meta an “extremist organization,” outlawing Facebook and Instagram. WhatsApp is exempt from the ruling, because it doesn’t have a “public information sharing” function.
We are alarmed by this latest attempt by Russian authorities’ to curtail freedom of expression and access to information in Russia. Access Now calls on Russian authorities to immediately stop its assault on freedom of expression under the guise of extremism/terrorism laws. We also urge the international community to condemn Russia’s actions, protect tech platforms and their staff from state violence, and support Russian users through providing secure and affordable privacy and circumvention tools.
BREAKING: A Russian court has now declared Meta an “extremist organization” for “inciting violence” against Russian people and allegedly being Russophobic ⬇️https://t.co/CjHXd2I5Ox
— Access Now (@accessnow) March 21, 2022
March 18, 2022: #KeepItOn: How to stop internet shutdowns in Ukraine
Russia is continuing to wield internet disruptions as part of its escalating attacks on Ukraine.
“It is imperative that the international community act now to protect and maintain the communications infrastructure in Ukraine and demand accountability for those who damage it,” wrote Anastasiya Zhyrmont, Regional Outreach Coordinator (Eastern Europe & Central Asia) at Access Now.
To support the effort to keep Ukraine online, Access Now has addressed a series of recommendations to U.N. bodies, tech companies, telecommunications providers, and other relevant actors, accompanied with a clear message: don’t let Russia disconnect Ukraine.
As online space shrinks, Telegram has established itself as the go-to resourcer for collaborating and communicating in Ukraine. But, as Access Now has made clear, the application is plagued with safety and security issues for the people who use it, particularly around the reliability and verification of information, digital security, and content moderation.
“Creating a false sense of security around communications that are not in fact fully protected can encourage people to expose highly sensitive information they would have otherwise directed through other channels,” Carolyn Tackett, Deputy Advocacy Director at Access Now told The Record.
International actors are continuing to disconnect people in Russia from digital engagement. Slack — a workplace communications platform — is now reportedly cutting off access to customers in Russia. Email marketing tool MailChimp and domain registrar and web host Namecheap have both also starting pulling their services, taking Russian civil society voices offline in the process.
As the blockings intensify, it is becoming increasingly challenging for people in Russia to exchange ideas and information.
“It’s not going to be helpful to isolate Russian citizens and leave them only with state propaganda that’s inciting them and urging them to hate Ukrainians,” Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now told NBC.
March 14, 2022: Russia has blocked Facebook and Twitter since the beginning of the war on Ukraine. Today, Putin, after a 48-hour warning period, has cut the nation off from Instagram as well. We oppose these actions, and call on authorities to urgently reinstate full access to social media platforms across the country, and uphold access to information and the right to freedom of expression.
We vehemently oppose the blocking of Instagram in Russia.
— Access Now (@accessnow) March 14, 2022
While censorship instigated the rise in VPN downloading and usage among Russian users, Russian regulatory body, Roskomnadzor, barely tolerates the usage of circumvention tools, have been supplementing the list of banned VPNs with new titles since last year. Resources for staying connected from Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline are available in both Russian and English.
Many technology companies are currently struggling to maintain operations in Russia due to both the unprecedented economic sanctions and export controls imposed by the U.S. and the European Union, and the intense pressure from the government of Russia to implement censorship measures.
“In the face of such a brutal and blatantly illegal use of military intervention, it is critical that tech companies and those investing in the tech sector, carefully review their ongoing and planned activities in the region to fully understand how and whether their operations can potentially cause or contribute, even indirectly, to any adverse human rights impacts,” said Laura Okkonen, Investor Advocate at Access Now.
Access Now has laid out a series of recommendations tech companies and investors should implement to understand and address the human rights impacts of business operations in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, including:
- Investors: Conduct ongoing, enhanced human rights due diligence and check for any direct equity or fixed-income investments in Russia or Belarus involving the Russian and Belarusian state or any of their agencies, state-affiliated entities, or Russian separatists in occupied eastern Ukraine to understand your potential risks, whether these are direct or indirect risks occurring through your potential investment;
- Tech companies: Take care to understand the human rights impacts of current and potential sanctions, in consultation with civil society, and avoid overcompliance in policy and practice;
- Telcos and internet service providers in Europe: Protect infrastructure to maintain connectivity and push back against any orders for internet and communications shutdowns; and
- Tech platforms: Maintain services in the region to the extent possible. In war time and other fragile and conflict-affected situations, these platforms are even more necessary for civic organizing, communications, and receiving and imparting information.
Access Now, Wikimedia Foundation, and over 35 civil society organizations called on U.S. President Biden and his administration to ensure the people of Russia and Belarus are not cut off from the internet. The signatories deplore Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and urge that further restricting the internet in Russia and Belarus will only accelerate violence and repression. The coalition is pushing for the Biden administration and other governments to, among other recommendations, immediately authorize the provision of services, software, and hardware incident to personal communications over the internet, and consult with civil society actors and technology companies to understand the likely ramifications of potential sanctions.
March 8, 2022: Internet disruptions continue to intensify in Ukraine. The residents of Mariupol have been deliberately cut off from the world after Russian troops shelled the area’s last cell tower leaving the population not only without running water, electricity, or heat, but also without access to communication and tools for emergency coordination. Interruptions to Vodafone’s mobile and internet services were reported in the cities of Berdyansk and Energodar, and in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The major telco, Ukrtelecom, has repeatedly informed its customers about the possible throttling of the internet due to infrastructure damages all across the country, while a 3-hour long complete outage of its services was recorded on March 8, 2022.
To mitigate the impacts of targeted network shutdowns, mobile operators Kyivstar, Vodafone Ukraine, and lifecell, together with the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, have launched a national roaming service that allows subscribers to switch to other operators’ networks if they are unable to access their own operator’s. Access Now welcomes this swift approach to #KeepItOn throughout military aggression.
March 7, 2022: Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) has documented the drastic rise in online censorship in Russia since the war on Ukraine began. In attempts to hide the truth and control the narrative, Putin’s government is blocking not only independent news media websites, but also sources that gather data on captured and killed Russian soldiers. Russia’s self-censorship is further fueled by the nation’s new “fake news” law that punishes media, bloggers, and ordinary people for spreading information about the invasion that contradicts the official governmental position with heavy fines and up to 15 years imprisonment. The implications of the law are so unpredictable that several platforms have suspended their services to avoid the repercussions, with TikTok having announced that it will cease livestreaming and new content to its video functions while assessing the regulation.
March 6, 2022: People in Russia and Belarus, condemning the war in Ukraine and protesting against their governments’ actions, are facing brutal detentions and heavy penalties. According to civil society reports, 5,335 people in 73 Russian cities were detained due to their “no war” position on March 6, 2022. Evidence of beatings and torture during the interrogations of anti-war protesters is also emerging.
The biggest protest in Belarus since 2020, took place on February 27 ,and ended in the detention of 908 people, and arrest of 589 people who are facing a combined 8,257 days of imprisonment. At least three women were arrested while praying for peace in church in Minsk on March 3, 2022, driving home the fact that the repression machine has no limits.
March 4, 2022: Access Now calls on the Russian communications regulator to urgently reverse its orders to block Facebook and Twitter in the country. We are also receiving reports that app stores are being blocked and throttled in Russia.
These repressive moves by the Russian government, along with disruptions to service from international infrastructure providers, are hurting people’s ability to fight and resist Russian state violence. We urge all parties to respect human rights and #KeepItOn.
March 4, 2022: Calls for justice in the international system
Access Now delivered an oral statement at the UN Human Rights Council’s Urgent Debate on Ukraine (38:50), where the Council voted to urgently establish an independent commission of inquiry as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that will be crucial for further accountability.
We also joined 65 other organizations in calling for states to support the International Criminal Court, its investigation into the conflict in Ukraine, and civil society participation, from evidence gathering to testimony to witness support.
March 3, 2022: Following our open letter, several members of the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association have taken a range of options to support people in Ukraine:
- Free international calls to Ukraine
- No roaming charges with Ukraine
- Distribution of SIM cards to refugees arriving in neighbouring countries
- Free WiFi in refugee camps
- Activation of the “SMS donation” function to the benefit of organizations supporting refugees
- Including Ukrainian channels in IPTV packages for no added fee
A non-exhaustive list of European operators that took measures as of March 3, 2022 include: Deutsche Telekom Group; Orange Group; Telefónica/O2; BT; Telia Company; A1 Telekom Austria Group; Telenor Group; Proximus Group; KPN; Vodafone Group; Vivacom; TIM Telecom Italia; Altice Portugal; Swisscom; GO Malta; CYTA; Orange Romania; BH Telecom.
We are pleased to see these actions. However, we would like to see them extended to more members, and to have data costs lifted as people are relocating and need to contact families, authorities, and organisations, including via apps. Additionally, we would like SIM registration requirements to be lifted for people arriving from Ukraine who may not have the necessary documentation to fulfill these.
March 3, 2022: We applaud ICANN’s decision not to unilaterally disconnect Russian domains, and to apply its policies consistent with its role as coordinator of the domain name system.
“Disconnecting people from the internet based on nationality, especially during the time of conflict, would cause irreparable damage to both Russian and Ukrainian people’s ability to fight and resist Russian state violence,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now.
“International human rights law supports ICANN’s assertion that ‘broad and unimpeded access to the internet’ helps combat harmful propaganda and disinformation,” added Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now.
The European Union must do everything in its power to ensure the safety and wellbeing of people affected by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Through an open letter, Access Now has laid out clear actions for working with tech platforms and telecoms operators to uphold connectivity, access to accurate information, data protection, and non-discrimination at the border.
“Russia’s war on Ukraine is affecting millions of people, and the European Union has both the power and the responsibility to ensure the internet and all telecommunications are accessible for all. Decisions and interventions must come now,” said Fanny Hidvegi, Europe Policy Director at Access Now.
Brett Solomon, Executive Director at Access Now, had a clear message for online platforms operating throughout the war on Ukraine, and in crises, “keep the internet open,” he said on the ABC’s The Drum.
March 1, 2022: Calls to deplatform and disconnect the Russian public threaten human rights
Access Now is closely monitoring developments impacting the ability of people in Russia to share and access independent news, organize, and participate in anti-war activism. Restrictions to communications platforms including Facebook and Twitter by the Russian government — while companies such as domain hosts pull their services from the country in response to the ongoing conflict — are further reducing access to information in an already repressive environment. Further calls to broadly take Russian voices offline, including an appeal to ICANN to block all domains registered in Russia, undermine the essential work of human rights defenders.
February 26, 2022: Facebook, Apple, Twitter, YouTube face pressure over Russia-Ukraine war
“Major tech companies have a responsibility to their Ukrainian and Russian users to respect their rights to freedom of expression and access to information, especially in the time of war and political crisis,” said Natalia Krapiva, the Tech Legal Counsel of Access Now. “They do, however, also have a responsibility to keep their users safe and identify and respond to any campaigns of disinformation that may result in violence and abuse,” she said.
February 24, 2022: Ukraine internet outages spark concerns of broader blackout
The #KeepItOn coalition is on high alert monitoring for disruptions to internet and communications services during the conflict in Ukraine, with some limited outages already reported. “Internet infrastructure becomes a target in order to control the flow of information and gain or maintain power during conflict, as we witnessed through the destruction of Yemen’s telecom infrastructure due to Saudi-led airstrikes,” Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn lead at Access Now, told The Verge. “Internet shutdowns during times of crises, conflict, and unrest make it difficult for journalists and human rights defenders to get vital information in and out of these regions and for people to access crucial information that can impact their safety.”
February 24, 2022: We stand with the people of Ukraine as they endure Russia’s large-scale military invasion targeting population centers across the country, alongside ongoing cyberattacks impacting critical services and infrastructure. Digital right violations enable and escalate offline violence, and the calculated attacks targeting digital systems essential to people’s safety and wellbeing are unacceptable.
The international community must urgently take up the recommendations in our previous statement in support of Ukraine’s civil society and those most at risk. All public and private entities operating in Ukraine that provide digital services and handle sensitive user data should urgently review their services for potential security and human rights issues, clearly communicate to their users any anticipated impacts to services, and consider the wellbeing of their staff and stakeholders amidst this crisis and in light of Russia’s apparent intentions to replace the Ukrainian government. Access Now welcomes initial efforts by tech companies, including Meta and Cloudflare, to implement extra security measures and set up Special Operation Centers that include language experts to help protect Ukrainian users. We encourage tech companies to take swift action enabling users to easily lock down or delete their accounts and data, and enhancing the security and resilience of networks, apps, and services, while keeping watch for campaigns of disinformation and abuse. We also urge providers to ensure civil society voices in Ukraine, Russia, and beyond remain online, protecting them against censorship attempts.
Access Now, together with Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law and Digital Security Lab Ukraine, calls on the international community to take swift action in support of civil society in Ukraine, as well as the broader public whose human rights are being undermined by cyberattacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
Following the most recent cyberattacks on January 13-14 and February 15, 2022 targeting Ukraine’s essential public service infrastructure, and the ongoing threat of escalating Russian aggression, this is a critical moment for solidarity with Ukrainian civil society.
The statement calls for:
- Tech companies, nonprofits, and funders to provide direct support to journalists, civil society, and human rights defenders in strengthening their resilience against cyber threats;
- UN bodies and other international organizations to establish and uphold clear, people-first cybersecurity standards; and
- Policymakers, platforms, and other relevant stakeholders to guard against attempts to escalate and exploit current tensions.