US exempts telecoms services from Russia sanctions

Treasury Department opens door to internet communication

The US Treasury Department has exempted Russian telecommunications and internet companies from some of the strictest sanctions imposed in response to the invasion of Ukraine in February.

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The move follows pleas from NGOs and internet freedom groups which had argued that cutting Russians off from communication with the west would do more harm than good.Businesses involving “services, software, hardware, or technology incident to the exchange of communications over the internet” will no longer be subject to the heavy-handed sanctions the US imposed on Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine in February, according to an order issued last week by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The new order specifically does not apply to Russian financial institutions or state-controlled entities, however, which remain under sanction.

Access Now legal counsel Natalia Krapiva praised Washington’s move, declaring that “US internet communication technologies are key for human rights defenders and independent media to report on and fight Russian and Belarusian governments’ aggression in Ukraine.” Others, particularly those responsible for crafting media narratives, might argue that preventing conflicting news from grassroots reporters is a feature rather than a bug.

While the rollback might seem like a win for both parties, it does not require companies that voluntarily pulled out of Russia to resume service. Many of the best-known companies that ceased doing business in Russia did so voluntarily. Meanwhile, many activists have resorted to using VPNs and other workarounds to avoid the restrictions.

The decision is bad news for the Ukrainian government, which has sought to impose a de facto digital iron curtain by revoking Russia’s access to the Domain Name System. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has dismissed the possibility of shutting Russia out of the system, arguing it would erode trust in the system while having little if any impact on the Russian military campaign.

Russia’s communications regulator banned Facebook and Instagram last month after the social media giants and their parent company Meta permitted hate speech and encouragement of violence against Russian soldiers in some countries. The ban followed an increasingly stringent crackdown on Russian state media content from Meta, which other platforms including Twitter, YouTube and Google have echoed, and Russian state media websites themselves have been blocked in many countries.

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The European Union went still farther, ordering Google and other search engines to delist RT and other Russian state media in addition to blocking the sites themselves from its constituent countries.

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