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Digital policy analysis of Russia-Ukraine information war (op-ed)

All eyes have been fixed on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine invasion. With just few weeks in, several digital policy concerns have been brought to light by journalists' reports of the war that now extends to the digital space.


Reactionary efforts to exclude Russia from the digital space


Ukraine has garnered a lot of support from the International scene, pushing Russia to the corner. Big tech companies are increasingly excommunicating Russia and denying residents access to their services. Apart from extensively being cut off from digital infrastructure, the attention drawn by the war has imposed heavy political pressure on the international community, earning Russia unprecedented sanctions. Many countries have distanced their association with Russia to avoid being on the bad side of history.


For instance, Russia has been excluded from the International Financial Markets by partially cutting it off from the international SWIFT financial messaging system. The stringent sanctions against Russia, almost aimed to completely cut off the country from the global community, begs the question 'how far is too far?', with a host of human rights issues coming up. Most of these interventions are seemingly superfluous, harming civilians more as opposed to the Russian government.


Ukraine's reaction to Russia perpetuating misinformation on the crisis

In response to Russia perpetuating misinformation about the invasion online, Ukraine officials emailed two International internet organizations requesting that Russia's root servers and widely used domain names ".su" ".ru" be shut down. The harsh requests were emphatically denied by ICANN CEO, Goran Marby, citing that the request not only goes against company policies but also raises human rights concerns. Shutting down a whole country from the internet would set a bad precedent.


More so, when implemented by an organization whose main mission is to foster global internet connectivity, this move would also deny both innocent Russian citizens and outsiders their right to internet access. This includes the right to access Russian perspectives of the war and express opinions about it online. The Internet also facilitates the actualization of other fundamental human rights such as economic rights. Russian citizens who earn a living online would be greatly disadvantaged. Additionally, Internet experts have revealed that internet inaccessibility would expose Russian residents to man-in-the-middle attacks that enable financial fraud and other crimes. More of the story here.


Role of Big Tech Corporations in digital war

The ongoing war also leads relevant experts to inquire into what role Big Tech should assume in digital wars. Perhaps a probe into whether taking sides is more injurious than staying neutral in such cases. The dawn of the invasion saw major tech corporations indefinitely halting the provision of their products and services to Russian civilians. A viral Twitter post showing Russians stranded at the Moscow Metro station illuminated the situation. Google pay and Apple pay withdrew their payment services greatly disrupting residents' daily life.


Furthermore, Apple announced plans to discontinue the sale of its products in the country. It is unclear how this action contributes to improving the situation in Ukraine. Apple discontinuing the sale of its devices in Russia will only expose civilians to cybersecurity threats by co-opting to use less secure devices.


To worsen the crisis, social media platforms such as Twitter, Youtube and Meta's Facebook restricted users' access in the region. The restrictions disadvantage Russians' access to democratic information and the right to free speech that is aided by these platforms. Another blow to free speech has been efforts by Russian state officials to control the narrative of the ongoing crisis. For instance, Russia restricted access to Facebook because the platform employed independent fact-checking of Russian government-controlled media outlets.


Conclusion

The article traverses the realities surrounding the Russia-Ukraine conflict, including acts of aggression by both parties, the role of the International Community and Big Tech in the unfolding of the war. By outlining the implications of the war on civilians at the moment, this piece emphasizes the need to protect civilians in times of war. Woefully, the state agenda usually trumps the preservation of human life in wars.


Perhaps when contemplating policy issues in cyber warfare a question that lingers, in the end, is "what compromises on internet governance are allowable in an attempt to foster peace?". The inevitability of limitations on certain human rights during war and the necessity of the law to guide such restrictions is apparent.



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Edna Bonyo (Tech Policy Fellow- Lawyers Hub)
Digital policy analysis of Russia-Ukraine information war (op-ed)
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