B4Ukraine Position Paper. Access to the Internet in the Context of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
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The B4Ukraine coalition strongly condemns Russia’s ongoing invasion and occupation of Ukraine and works to block access to the economic and financial resources enabling Russian aggression. We continue to call on companies to terminate or suspend their business operations in Russia that finance, enable, or otherwise support the war of aggression until the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine within internationally recognized borders is restored and accountability is imposed for war crimes and the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and property.

While it is critical that companies cease providing resources and support to the Russian government, we also believe that open access to the internet must be preserved in Russia, Belarus, and occupied Ukrainian territory to support organizing efforts in opposition to the war, factual and open reporting on events in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, and access to global information. Governments, information & communication technology (ICT) companies, and investors all have a role to play in these efforts particularly because access to the internet is essential for the protection of a number of other rights, including freedom of expression, access to information, and the freedom of association. Journalists, human rights defenders, and other members of civil society inside and outside of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus depend on access to secure information technologies to perform their critical reporting roles, while Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian citizens need access to information not controlled by the Russian state.

Shutting down the internet in Russia or Belarus, or limiting access to external internet services or platforms in Russia, Russian-controlled territory, and Belarus will bolster and broaden Russian government disinformation, censorship, and surveillance efforts domestically as well as in occupied Ukrainian territory. In the absence of open internet access, users will be forced to rely on services and information tightly controlled, manipulated, and monitored by Russian authorities and their separatist proxies. To end or limit internet access would be tantamount to supporting Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to tighten his government’s grip on information flowing in and out of Russia and occupied Ukrainian territory, as demonstrated by banning Facebook, Twitter, and other independent media as well as fining Twitch, Airbnb, and Pinterest for refusing to comply with data localization laws. Such restrictions would likewise support Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to engage in widespread censorship and silence pro-democracy voices.

We believe it is important to bolster efforts that ensure access to the global internet in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, including those areas under Russian military occupation. For example, while we fully support the array of sanctions and export controls imposed by governments and government bodies on Russian and Belarusian state agencies, state-owned and -affiliated companies, and business oligarchs that are directing, enabling, and/or financing Russia’s violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, we endorse the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s decision to issue a General License to exempt internet communications services, and related software, hardware, or technologies, from U.S. sanctions against Russia. We call on stakeholders to take actions in support of access to the internet and related human rights in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.

Governments should:

  • Authorize the provisioning of services, software, and hardware essential to personal communications over the internet, while providers seek to ensure compliance;
  • Consult digital rights organizations and ICT companies to understand the potential and actual harms of ICT-related sanctions;
  • Implement sanctions in a targeted manner, consistent with international human rights law (IHRL), including by providing clear guidance about how sanctions should be implemented in ways that protect access to the internet;
  • Report transparently on the justifications for and impacts of ICT-related sanctions and the process by which they are developed;
  • Provide stakeholders with an accessible mechanism to report on current and potential targets of ICT-related sanctions;
  • Regularly review and, if necessary, revise ICT-related sanctions to ensure they remain aligned with IHRL, in close consultation with digital rights organizations; and
  • Apply a similar approach to any ICT-related sanctions on Belarus.

ICT Companies should:

  • Protect infrastructure, waive charges for all communications from and to Ukraine, lift SIM registration for anyone arriving in the EU territory from Ukraine, and boost network capacity;
  • Take all possible measures to protect their workers in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus and the communities in which their direct operations and those across their value chain take place;
  • Affirm publicly their support for the democracy, territorial integrity, and fundamental rights of the people of Ukraine with accompanying public support for the international rule of law;
  • Map their business activities, relationships, and/or investments across their value chain to identify and assess any human rights harms they are causing, contributing to, or are linked to including:
    • any and all business relationships, activities, and communications involving the Russian and Belarusian states or any of their agencies, state-owned and -affiliated entities, business oligarchs, or Russian separatists in occupied eastern Ukraine; and
    • any revenues from such business relationships and activities that may enrich military-owned, -controlled, or affiliated business and/or provide funding or support to the Russian or Belarusian military made before or after the February 2022 invasion.
  • Disclose any requests or orders by Russian or Belarusian authorities for user data, to restrict or censor content, or to shut down access to the internet and related services, and how authorities responded to these requests, including details on how many requests they complied with and any notification provided to affected users;
  • Prevent and mitigate their exposure to human rights risks based on these findings, including through the termination of business activities in the event that such risks prove to be immitigable;
  • Design and implement processes to enable the remediation of adverse human rights impacts including those impacts on their in-country staff and local stakeholders;
  • Report regularly and publicly on their human rights policy, including due diligence efforts and procedures in place to cease, prevent, and mitigate negative human rights impacts;
  • For those companies not causing or contributing to human rights harms but considering withdrawing or closing operations in Russia, weigh such decisions against the potential negative impacts on the human rights of employees, local communities, civil society, and other stakeholders not party to or in support of the invasion.

Investors should:

  • Assess and monitor portfolios for ICT companies with direct and/or value chain exposure to individuals or entities that may be causing, contributing to, or directly linked to human rights harms in Ukraine and Russia;
  • Engage ICT companies with exposure to human rights harms in Ukraine and Russia to encourage preventative and/or mitigatory action, including escalation strategies such as voting against boards of directors and filing shareholder proposals; and
  • Consider the exclusion of those ICT companies that are unwilling or unable to mitigate their exposure to human rights harms in Russia and Ukraine.
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