The European Internet Blockade of Russian Propagandist Media

The first publicly open Tactical Media Meet-Up in Amsterdam

On the 30th of June 2022, the Tactical Media Room initiative brought together media- and tech specialists, journalists, and policymakers from the media outlets of the Netherlands, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus to discuss the shaping of Europe’s digital public domain. It was the first debate on this issue that included internet activists and journalists directly involved in war-news production and delved deeply into the arguments on the levels of both technical, and content-related aspects.

Against the backdrop of the war with Ukraine, the Russian government has sharply increased funding for state media, resulting in an unprecedented level of state propaganda spread on social media platforms. As a consequence, US and EU lawmakers and Ukrainian officials have jolted into action by pressuring social media platforms in an attempt to curb Russian misinformation. This seems to be a watershed moment with regard to freedom of the press and internet freedom. The Tactical Media Room (TMR) organized a well-attended discussion on what is at stake with internet activists and journalists directly involved in war-news production.

TMR is an initiative of Waag Futurelab and Institute for Network Cultures (HvA), in collaboration with hackers, artists, designers, and members of organizations such as Beeld en Geluid, Free Press Unlimited, Mediastudies (UvA), Freedom Internet, Free Russia, MCH2022/Dutch hackercamps, Stichting Democratie en Media, TechInc and Internet Society Nederlands and —including a growing number recently arrived Ukranians.

Maria van der Togt kicked off the meeting and Vesna Manojlovic asked the audience to hold a one-minute of silence to contribute to our respect for the suffering and victims of the people in the Ukrainian-Russia war.

The discussion was eloquently guided by Chris Keulemans who published reports, interviews, books and essays on Srebrenica, Peja, Mostar, Tirana, Belgrade and Mitrovica. The balanced speaker cast consisted of Maria van der Togt (artist, writer and producer of Tactical Media Room on behalf of the Institute of Network Cultures), Elmaz Asanova (a Crimean Tatar/Ukrainian journalist (ATR Channel, Kyiv, Ukraine) & activist), Ilya Shcharbitski (an activist who has taken the lead in the Belarus movement in the Netherlands), Sophia Kornienko (a Russian-Dutch journalist and animation artist), Geert Lovink (a Dutch media theorist, internet critic, founder of the Institute of Network Cultures and co-founder of TMR), Vesna Manojlovic (Senior Community Builder at RIPE NCC) and last but not least Niels ten Oever (an activist postdoctoral researcher and amongst others Vice-Chair for the Global Internet Governance Academic Network). Also, the audience actively participated in the discussion.

copyright picture Ellen Rutten (@ellenrutten)

Based on our findings in “the Platform Geopolitics in 2022: Russian invasion of Ukraine – an incomplete overview“, Internet Society Nederlands chair Ruben Brave was asked by Maria to open the discussion and also participate as a speaker to reflect on critical questions, such as “Is freedom of speech sacrosanct or does the distribution of content via the internet come with responsibilities and if so, where lies that responsibility?” “Who are duty bearers?” “How do these decisions affect internet connectivity?” “Will censoring Putin’s propaganda machine be a precedent for the future curbing of freedom of the press and internet freedom?

In the TMR discussion the relevance of the insights of the other activities of our Dutch ISOC chapter, such as the ISOC NL MMGA Working Group, the ISOC NL Internet Transparency Working Group, our refocus on diversity and inclusion, our participation in the Academic Working Group Disinformation of the municipality of Amsterdam and our cyber diplomacy efforts e.g. via Platform Internet Standards, seemed to be of eminent importance. The discussion also showed that other and further scientific insights are needed, but also more deeply ethical and economical multistakeholder discussions. The latter also included a possibly ethically revised organizational role for civic society organizations, such as ISOC itself.

copyright picture Ellen Rutten (@ellenrutten)

The lively TMR meeting was held at SPUI25, the academic-cultural stage of Amsterdam. Since 2007, they have been giving scientists, writers, artists and other thinkers the stage to shine their light on issues that concern, inspire or disturb them. Enriching and often interdisciplinary programs that move between science and culture, between fact and fiction. SPUI25 bridges the gap between science, the arts and society. A broadly interested public can attend the meetings physically at the Spui in Amsterdam, from home via the live stream or afterwards via their online channels.

Watch here the recording of the TMR session at Spui25 on the 30th of June 2022 with the theme “The European Internet Blockade of Russian Propagandist Media”.

ISOC’s Internet Impact Briefs show the Impact of Ukraine’s Requests to Block Russia’s Access to the Internet and How Refusing Russian Networks Will Impact the Internet.

Summary and Recommendations

  • As countries worldwide look for ways to support Ukraine in a time of crisis, we must resist calls to disconnect Russia from the Internet. While it is understandable that people are seeking ways to support victims of geopolitical conflict, we cannot achieve this by harming a critical lifeline for civilians.

  • Actions to politicize connectivity and management of the Internet’s infrastructure — regardless of the reason — threaten the Internet and everyone’s ability to use it as a resource for good. As these Internet Impact Briefs have demonstrated, the recent requests from Ukraine officials to ICANN and RIPE NCC would significantly hinder critical elements the Internet needs to exist, and several of the features it needs to remain open, globally connected, secure and trustworthy.

  • Furthermore, it is important to note that even if the proposed actions may be reversable, the impact of politically motivated actions to cut people’s access to the global Internet may not be. Once a precedent that undermines multistakeholder governance processes is set it legitamizes dangerous actions by regimes seeking to control Internet access in the future.

  • In these turbulent times of plague and conflict, it is important to remember that the Internet is an incredible force for good. The pandemic has shown its potential to facilitate global efforts to find new ways of living, working and learning, and solving some of our toughest problems yet. Likewise, many civilians under oppressive regimes and victims of conflict rely on access to the global Internet for reliable information, and as a lifeline to keep themselves safe from harm.

  • We cannot afford to make the Internet a casualty of geopolitics. These Internet Impact Briefs have demonstrated how restricting networks from the global Internet causes significant harm to key elements the Internet needs to exist and thrive.

  • While geopolitical conflicts may come to an end, we cannot assume that the impact of the politically motivated actions to prevent people from accessing the Internet will be reversed.

  • Some network collaboration may resume, but there is a significant risk that politically motivated actions to disconnect users from the global Internet set a precedent and trend that play into the hands of regimes seeking to censor, block and control Internet access. Companies that own and operate parts of the Internet’s infrastructure play an important role in the Internet’s ecosystem. We each have a responsibility to protect the Internet and the billions of people worldwide who rely on it as a critical resource for good. We must all work to make sure the Internet is open, globally connected, secure and trustworthy for everyone.

  • The Internet is for everyone. To make sure it stays that way, we must support the independence and neutrality of the governance bodies and institutions responsible for its workings. Making an exception on the norms of the current governance system would set a dangerous precedent that would erode trust and could ultimately lead to the demise of a global communications resource and our ability to use it as a force for good.