Why the Biden Administration is Keeping the Internet Up in Russia?

The US strategy for curbing the Russian attack on Ukraine has largely been to weaken Russia militarily, by supplying the Ukrainians with weapons and intelligence, and economically through sanctions.

Given the brutality we’ve seen in recent weeks, some may wonder why the Biden administration hasn’t taken urgent steps to disrupt Russian internet access. This would certainly hamper the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign and, as a result, its efforts to evoke domestic support for the invasion. In light of that fact, the Biden administration’s reluctance to do so underscores the important role the Internet plays in modern warfare. It is an essential tool that helps shape public opinion.

Late last week, the US Treasury Department officially announced it would exempt a class of Internet and telecommunications providers from the latest round of Russian sanctions.

The exceptions include “services, software, hardware or technology” related to “the exchange of communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, video conferencing, chatting and emailing, social networking, sharing of photos, films and documents, browsing the web, blogging, web hosting and domain name registration services.”

Photo illustration: a URL against the colors of the Russian flag
MSNBC/Getty Images

The government said it made these exceptions “to support the flow of information and access to the Internet that provides the Russian people with outside perspectives.”

In other words, keeping the Russians online and connected to the outside world, where they can receive information that counteracts the Kremlin’s points of discussion, is in the interest of the United States and the world. That’s in line with guidelines from human rights groups, which warned the government about the downside of cutting off Russia’s access.

By doing so, they said, the Kremlin could be able to create a so-called “splinternet,” or a nationalized version of the Internet that is exclusively controlled by the Kremlin and disconnected from the global Internet infrastructure.

In the early weeks of the Russian invasion, there were reports that the Biden administration was considering temporary interruptions to Russian internet service. The White House has warned of the high likelihood of Russian cyber-attacks on the US, so there is always the possibility that the Biden administration will waive the sanctions exemption or take aggressive steps to hinder internet access in Russia.

For now, the government sees that access as an integral part of its effort to end the war.

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