How Wikimedia and partner organizations helped ensure US companies continue to support access to free knowledge for the Russian people

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Activism symbol for Wikipedia
Activism symbol for Wikipedia. Image from Jasmina El Bouamraoui and Karabo Poppy Moletsane – Wikimedia Foundation, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On 8th April 2022, the United States government, in response to advocacy efforts by the Wikimedia Foundation and others, took a big step to protect the open internet for the people of Russia: the United States government authorized US internet companies to continue providing essential internet services in Russia amid growing sanctions against the Russian government. Considering that the US is the country with the highest number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), this has a critical impact in preserving access to the internet within Russia. This decision helps ensure that US companies do not cut off Russian Wikipedia editors and readers, independent media, and people across Russia—including those speaking for human rights and against the war—from the internet and the free exchange of knowledge online. 

In response to a letter sent by the Wikimedia Foundation, our partners at Access Now, and over 50 civil society organizations, the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, which is the office in charge of enforcing US economic and trade sanctions, issued General License 25. These types of licenses allow US companies to continue providing essential services to people living in countries under sanctions to protect their human rights, including the right to free expression. 

The license clarifies that providing telecommunications and internet services to people within Russia are not subject to the growing list of sanctions imposed since the Russian government illegally invaded Ukraine. The license is critical for providing certainty to US-based private companies that they can continue to supply internet access within Russia. Uncertainty had recently led several companies to cut off their services.

The Global Advocacy and Public Policy team took on this issue as part of broader efforts led by the Wikimedia Foundation to support the movement amidst the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. This has included direct support to affected individuals and affiliates, as well as working to ensure the free exchange of knowledge continues to be protected for people across the region.   

Any interruption to the internet’s backbone services would make it extremely difficult for Russian Wikipedians and Russian people to access accurate information overall, particularly about the invasion of Ukraine, and would threaten fundamental freedoms, such as the right to free expression. Moreover, the rest of the world would be cut off from hearing the perspectives of the people of Russia, including independent media in the country, on our projects. When one country cannot participate in the global conversation on Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects, the rest of the world suffers. 

When the United States, European Union, United Kingdom and other countries began imposing sanctions in the early days of the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine, these focused on Russian oligarchs, companies, and important aspects of the Russian economy. The Wikimedia Foundation and our allies in civil society around the world were concerned that the governments imposing these sanctions were not doing enough to preserve access to telecommunications and to the internet within Russia. In particular, it was unclear whether transactions related to internet access were covered or not by United States sanctions against Russia. 

Why did the Global Advocacy and Public Policy team decide to write a letter to the US government about internet access in Russia?

The Global Advocacy and Public Policy team at the Wikimedia Foundation was worried that this lack of clarity could lead private companies in the US to stop providing essential communications services, like internet backbone services, to companies within Russia. Confirming the fears of the Wikimedia Foundation and our allies, companies like Cogent and Lumen, major US-based internet service providers, began to cease providing service to Russia in early March 2022

What US government action did the Global Advocacy and Public Policy team advocate?

In the past, the US Treasury Department issued general licenses to clarify how government sanctions applied to businesses operating in the country. A general license is a type of formal authorization for companies, directing them on how they can do business in a particular country when sanctions are issued. For example, when the United States took similar actions against the Iranian government in 2013, it issued a license permitting companies to continue transactions related to internet access and telecommunications for citizens within Iran. 

Immediately following initial sanctions, the US Treasury Department issued a number of licenses pertaining to Russia and Ukraine, but not one specifically allowing for the continued provision of internet access. In the Wikimedia Foundation’s view, the lack of a general license for internet access was creating uncertainty surrounding whether US companies and payment processors could still provide those services to Russia without being in conflict with sanctions.

How did the letter with Access Now and others come together?

To urge the US government to action, the Wikimedia Foundation joined a group of allies, including Access Now and Human Rights First, and helped to draft a letter requesting that a general license for internet access to Russia be issued. The letter was signed by over 50 civil society groups, and was covered by news media organizations like Politico and The Washington Post.

What happened after the letter was sent?

While the US government responded saying they shared the goals of the letter and gave public statements clarifying that providing internet access was not a sanctioned activity, we persisted in our request that the US government issue a general license. It was important that the government not only say that US companies could continue providing services, but also why they should continue providing service within Russia. Last week, when the US Treasury Department met the letter’s demands and issued the general license, it was a tremendous victory for ensuring the internet continues to be protected for Russian people and accessible to them. It is more essential than ever that the free flow of information into and out of Russia continues uninterrupted.

What comes next?

We applaud the efforts that the US government made toward preserving access to a free and open internet. We urge the United States and other governments that have sanctioned the illegal invasion of Ukraine to continue demonstrating their commitment to free expression around the world, and supporting the ability of everyone across all borders to participate in the free exchange of knowledge online. 

We celebrate this important achievement while still recognizing there is much to be done to support the movement through the ongoing crisis. We will continue to help shape important policy decisions that ensure the Wikimedia Foundation and movement can continue to provide free knowledge to the world. If you’d like to learn more about how you can support affected communities, check out our post about solidarity with Ukraine on Diff.   

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