Resisting the rise of digital dictatorship in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

#KeepItOn: Who is shutting down the internet in Ukraine?

Since the start of full-scale invasion of Ukraine, internet shutdowns have become a part of Russian military strategy. By shutting down the internet, Russia’s military prevents local residents from sharing or receiving news about the war, and stops them from communicating with their loved ones. They can’t get information about humanitarian corridors and they can’t fact-check Russian propaganda and disinformation. Meanwhile, Russian soldiers operate with a sense of impunity, as the blackouts shroud their actions and make it extremely difficult for activists, journalists, and others to report war crimes or coordinate resistance

Russia’s internet shutdowns in occupied Ukraine are not isolated incidents. They are just one tool in Russia’s arsenal for digital occupation, wielded in pursuit of total informational control. Below, we identify four stages for this occupation, highlighting channels for resistance and global solidarity with Ukraine.

Stage 1. Destroying civilian telecommunication infrastructure

Seven months into the war, Ukrainian officials reported that 4,000 base stations for Ukrainian cellular providers had been damaged or hijacked, tens of thousands of kilometers of fiber optic cables were cut or seized, and 18 Ukrainian TV and radio broadcast towers were destroyed. The damage now is even more extensive.

In one of the attacks on a Kyiv TV tower, five people lost their lives. Nineteen people were killed in a similar attack on a Rivne TV tower. In targeting civilian broadcasting facilities, the Russian military may have violated international humanitarian law

How global actors can stand with Ukraine:

  • Condemn deliberate attacks on civilian communication infrastructure; 
  • Help protect Ukraine’s civilian communication infrastructure; and
  • Ensure that the International Criminal Court and other relevant independent courts, bodies, and mechanisms investigate any and all credible allegations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law committed in Ukraine, including attacking civilian telecommunication infrastructure.  

Stage 2. Rerouting internet traffic and seizing communication equipment

In May 2022, after three days of internet outage Ukrainian officials say was caused by Russian shelling and damaging a fiber optic cable, attackers rerouted internet traffic in Kherson from Ukrainian networks to Russian communication infrastructure. This strategy of rerouting the traffic, which Russia successfully tested in Crimea in 2014, is proving effective for censorship and surveillance in the occupied parts of Ukraine.  

To speed digital occupation, Russia reportedly used intimidation and blackmail to force Ukrainian internet service providers either to join Russian networks or to hand over all their equipment to the invading troops. Some internet providers evidently tried to resist and sabotage this effort by deliberately destroying or disconnecting their equipment, sometimes plunging cities into darkness. 

Russian invaders also worked to shut off mobile communication in Ukraine. Robbed of any means of communication with family and friends, some Ukrainians climbed hilltops to seek a connection. Some were reportedly shot as they tried to catch the signal. 

The occupiers then distributed SIM cards for Kremlin-controlled telecom networks, making it difficult to call other parts of Ukraine.  

How do these efforts contribute to the forced “Russification” of occupied territories? Russian invaders:

  1. Avoid taking responsibility for disconnecting the occupied Ukraine regions. Instead, the authorities claim they are the ones bringing connectivity and “progress” to the occupied territories by imposing their own version of “sovereign internet” on the Ukrainian people.
  2. Require payment in rubles. By forcing people to pay for communication services this way, the occupying power promotes a switch to its currency.
  3. Restrict and control communication so it’s limited to Russia-controlled networks. Ukrainians are forced to show their IDs to get a SIM card, which identifies them. The Russian code numbers then make it extremely difficult for them to call Ukrainian numbers. This largely disconnects them from their friends and relatives in other parts of Ukraine. 

How global actors can stand with Ukraine: 

  • Condemn seizing and rerouting internet communication channels to control territories and populations;  
  • Help Ukraine restore and strengthen connectivity in all of its territories;
  • Abandon forced SIM card registration policies and acknowledge the chilling effect they have on the rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association; and
  • Protect telecom providers and their staff from violence, intimidation, and retaliation.

Stage 3.  Imposing heavy censorship and surveillance 

With Russian infrastructure comes Russian censorship. On July 6, Russian invaders blocked access to Instagram and YouTube in Kherson. On July 22, they disabled Google’s search engine in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson on the pretext that the company was “openly propagating terrorism and violence against Russians.” Russia also claimed to have shut down Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube in the occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhia region. Ukrainians in occupied territories are forced to use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to reach blocked platforms. 

The digital occupation means that the Russia military is often censoring the same information in occupied territories that it censors in Russia, and, at least in the case of YouTube, even more. According to the registry of blocked websites maintained by Roskomsvoboda, since the start of a full-scale war, Russia has blocked 2,696 news websites, 584 of which are Ukrainian, as well as dozens of Ukrainian government domains. It appears Russia is also censoring  digital resistance resources, including civil society organizations’ websites, counter-propaganda sites, and websites coordinating help for Ukraine. 

As the invaders cut off communication channels, they also subject Ukrainians to propaganda, including false narratives that the Ukrainian army and the international community have abandoned them. Journalists working in Ukraine who try to tell the truth and counter these narratives are reportedly hunted down and threatened.

Meanwhile, Russians who oppose the war are also being silenced. Russia has a vast surveillance and censorship infrastructure, developed and supported with the help of western companies. Using the System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) and the rest of its sovereign internet infrastructure, Russia can monitor people’s internet activity, track them down, censor, and arrest them in order to crush dissent. 

How global actors can stand with Ukraine

  • Strongly condemn censorship and surveillance, especially as tools to control the Ukrainian populations and suppress anti-war movement in Russia;
  • Ensure that the internet across Ukraine remains free and secure; 
  • Discount or eliminate fees and registration requirements for cybersecurity services and enterprise-level software for civil society actors and public sector entities
  • Contribute to reports of the new UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia, created by the Human Rights Council to monitor abuses and shrinking civic space; 
  • Hold companies who assist the Russian authorities in violating human rights in Russia and the occupied territories accountable, for their use of surveillance technologies as well as for facilitating internet shutdowns, IP-spoofing, and website blocking, including through sanctions; and
  • Support a global moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, service, and use of surveillance technology, a threat to democratic voices everywhere. 

How activists can increase their digital safety: We encourage those at risk to access these digital security resources for human rights defenders in Ukraine. If you’re a journalist or part of an NGO fighting for human rights, and you need emergency assistance, please reach out to Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline or our partners at Digital Security Lab, Ukraine. 

If you are able, and feel comfortable doing so, help us document internet disruptions in Ukraine by sharing your internet shutdown impact story via this form.

Stage 4. Using shutdowns and blackouts as retaliation

Ukrainian counter-offensive successes in autumn 2022 prompted Russia to use connectivity disruptions not only for digital occupation, but to retaliate. One example: while the Ukrainian army was liberating the city of Kharkiv, Russia deployed missile strikes that left the city without electricity, water, or internet connectivity. The same thing happened in Kherson, where the Russian military blew up the TV center and other facilities, and destroyed and stole telecommunication equipment, as it retreated. This left the city without electricity and mobile connection. Subsequent missile attacks on November 23 left people across Ukraine without electricity, water supply, or mobile internet. The shelling resulted in the disabling of almost 60% of mobile operators’ stations.  

To fight these devastating blackouts, Ukrainian authorities have set up 4,000 so-called invincibility centers to help people get back online, charge their devices, and find warmth and food. Meanwhile, Ukrainian internet service providers (ISPs) are stockpiling generators, batteries, and solar panels. Officials expect ISPs to ensure connectivity for at least three days in case of total blackout. They understand the vital role the internet plays in documenting war crimes and atrocities like those in Bucha, and in rebuilding efforts as digital payments and remittances repair war-torn economies.

  How global actors can stand with Ukraine: 

  • Strongly condemn the use of internet shutdowns, forceful rerouting of traffic, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure as a weapon and punishment against civilian populations. It’s imperative for civil society, governments, and companies to work together to #KeepItOn at all times, including during armed conflicts;
  • Provide technical assistance and support in rebuilding infrastructure in all of Ukraine’s territory, and ensure the supply of telecommunications equipment within the mandate of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU); and 

What’s next

Even in times of conflict, “using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.” Shutdowns undermine a broad range of rights, with severe impacts for the victims. Now, internet shutdowns are being used as part of Russia’s unlawful invasion and occupation. It’s time for global actors to speak out and extend support for reconnecting Ukrainians. Access Now and the international #KeepItOn coalition will keep pushing for a permanent end to internet shutdowns, censorship, surveillance, and other digital rights violations in Ukraine and around the world.