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The battle to keep Russia’s Internet free

PARIS (AFP) – Western powers have seized the yachts of Russian oligarchs and booted Russian banks out of the international system in response to the Ukraine invasion, but sanctions that limit access to the Internet are proving highly divisive.

Ukraine has called loudly for a widespread boycott and Kyiv has even pushed for Russia to be cut off from the world wide web.

International sanctions have seen companies including big tech firms halt operations in Russia, and EU bans on Russian state media outlets have prompted the Kremlin to ban platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

Critics said all of this could well marginalise opponents of the Kremlin, boost the dominance of state media and even lead Russia to try to develop a sealed-off, local version of the Internet.

“It’s just severing the few remaining ties to the free flow of information and ideas,” said Peter Micek of Access Now, an NGO that campaigns for digital rights.

A Kremlin crackdown on journalists has already drastically reduced independent sources of information, forcing many media outlets to close or scale back their operations.

Most international social networks are now available only through virtual private networks (VPNs), with figures for VPN downloads suggesting plenty of Russians are following this path.

But with web access being squeezed from the inside and the outside, many experts are now calling for the West to take a different approach.

“Sanctions should be focussed and precise,” some 40 researchers, activists and politicians wrote in an open letter last week.

“They should minimise the chance of unintended consequences or collateral damage.

“Disproportionate or over-broad sanctions risk fundamentally alienating populations.”

The letter called for military and propaganda outlets to be targetted.

Other experts point out that punishing Russia by closing off the Internet is both technically and politically tricky.

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