Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine includes a broad range of cyberattacks, such as DDoS attacks on websites, blocking mobile connections, and other forms of deliberate disruption. Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition are documenting these attacks, some of which represent internet shutdowns and/or acts of censorship. They are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine — just as shutdowns have done in other parts of the world.
When governments like Russia’s interfere with internet access or block communications platforms, they prevent human right defenders, journalists, activists, and the public from getting access to information and reporting what is happening on the ground. It is often a deliberate attempt to hide human rights violations and atrocities and amplify state propaganda by removing access to alternative news sources. It is imperative that the international community, including U.N. bodies, tech companies, telecommunications providers, and other relevant actors, act now to protect and maintain the communications infrastructure in Ukraine and demand accountability for those who damage it.
Internet disruptions in Ukraine
Russia is wielding internet disruptions as part of its escalating attacks on Ukraine. Russian troops deliberately cut the residents of Mariupol off from the world when they shelled the area’s last cell tower. This leaves people who do not have running water, electricity, or heat without tools to communicate with one another and get emergency assistance. The invading army also plunged the cities of Bucha and Irpen into darkness as part of its occupation.
Ukrainian authorities and residents also report interruptions to Vodafone’s mobile and internet services in the cities of Berdyansk and Energodar, as well as in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Ukrtelecom, a major telco in Ukraine, has repeatedly informed its customers that decreased bandwidth is due to infrastructure damage. Another major provider, Triolan, was reportedly hit with a cyber attack on March 10, which caused a significant service outage that is yet to be fully resolved. Ukrainians have also temporarily lost internet connection in the Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv, and Kyiv regions.
Ukrainians are working to restore connectivity. After the Russian military tried to destroy communications infrastructure in Melitopol, Chernihiv, and Sumy, the State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection of Ukraine announced that repair work is underway. Sadly, only a few days later, on March 12 and 14, IODA data showed that Sumy, which has been under heavy Russian military bombardments, had a sharp drop in internet connectivity.
In an effort to mitigate the impacts of targeted network shutdowns in Ukraine, the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine is working with mobile operators Kyivstar, Vodafone Ukraine, and Lifecell to launch a national roaming service to allow subscribers who can’t connect to their own networks to switch to other networks. This is innovation we applaud as a measure to #KeepItOn during Russia’s illegal military aggression.
Connectivity lost: collateral damage or a part of Russian strategy?
It does not appear that the damage to critical communications infrastructure is incidental. In a recent statement, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky observed that shutting down communications channels may be part of a larger Russian strategy of sowing misinformation in cities like Mariupol. Indeed, the Russian military targeted TV towers in Kyiv, Korosten, Lysychansk, Kharkiv, and Rivne, demonstrating clear intent to prevent the dissemination of local news. In Melitopol and Kherson, the military has already blocked Ukrainian TV and radio, replacing them with Russian channels. Partners who monitor human rights in the Russian-occupied territories also report that authorities routinely shut down mobile communication networks while TV stations broadcast pro-Kremlin propaganda.
While these strategies are not new, it doesn’t mean they are any less dangerous. In a shutdown, you can’t get information about humanitarian corridors, you can’t reach your loved ones to see if they are okay, and you can’t use tools like Google’s air raid alert app, which depends on internet access.
What we can do to stop internet shutdowns in Ukraine
When military forces target internet and telecommunications infrastructure and cause communications blackouts during a conflict, international bodies and other actors must respond decisively to protect human rights.
We urge U.N. bodies and institutions to:
- Ensure that the new independent international commission of inquiry on Ukraine established by the U.N. Human Rights Council investigates and reports on digital rights violations, including internet shutdowns, censorship, and surveillance;
- Provide technical assistance, support, and assistance in rebuilding infrastructure on Ukrainian territory, as well as ensuring the supply of telecommunications equipment within the mandate of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU);
- Ensure that the International Criminal Court and other relevant courts investigate any credible allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or the crime of genocide committed in Ukraine, including crimes perpetrated online or through digital and cyber activities; and
- Invite civil society to collaborate in investigations, including through witness and victim support, and digital evidence collection and preservation.
We urge telecoms outside Ukraine to:
- Waive call, text, and data charges for all communications from and to Ukraine. At a minimum, all roaming charges should be lifted;
- Lift SIM registration and other identification requirements for anyone arriving in the E.U. from Ukraine, to help people to communicate with their families and authorities and avoid administrative delays; and
- Boost network capacity, as through “cell-on-wheels” mobile cell sites, in key locations such as border crossings.
We urge tech companies to:
- Facilitate the export, transfer, and activation of secure connectivity technologies, including alternatives to traditional telecommunications infrastructure such as mesh networking or satellite internet, as safe and appropriate and in coordination with local actors;
- Take all possible measures to protect your workers and the communities in which your value chain operations take place in Ukraine;
- Take measures to further protect the accounts and data of users in Ukraine from hacking, surveillance, censorship, and other online threats;
- Avoid over compliance with sanctions and ensure full understanding of the human rights impact of your decisions to avoid inadvertently undermining the rights of most vulnerable users, including individuals living in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia; and
- Adopt policies and practices that identify, assess, and address the heightened human rights risks inherent in conflict-affected and high-risk areas.
As always, our first priority is the people suffering under these attacks. If you are a human rights defender in Ukraine, we have digital safety resources in Ukrainian, English, and Russian. If you need additional emergency assistance with staying secure or getting connected, reach out to our 24/7 Digital Security Helpline. For representatives of tech companies that operate in Ukraine, Russia, or Belarus, read our guidelines on what the tech sector can do to protect human rights during this crisis.
Where to get more help
As always, our first priority is the people suffering under these attacks. If you are a human rights defender in Ukraine, we have digital safety resources in Ukrainian, English, and Russian. If you need additional emergency assistance with staying secure or getting connected, reach out to our 24/7 Digital Security Helpline.
For representatives of tech companies that operate in Ukraine, Russia, or Belarus, read our guidelines on what the tech sector can do to protect human rights during this crisis.