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Who watches the watchers?

How the war in Ukraine fits into the frictionless infrastructures of censorship and planetary technological governance

EuropeMedia War ZonesScience and Technology

Photo by Don Fontijn/Unsplash

The infrastructure of blacklists

Much Western media reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has amounted to hand-holding the public by avoiding content deemed to be disinformation and fake news. Few questions have been raised about who decides what falls into those categories or about the consequences of normalizing censorship—not just censorship as a filter applied to content, but censorship as the very scaffold of Internet connectivity, communications infrastructure and hardware.

In March, Apple stopped sales in Russia and removed Russian news apps like RT and Sputnik from the App Store. Microsoft similarly removed Russian news apps from its store, while Google delisted Russian state-funded news. In contrast, Western mainstream media has criticized Russia’s own ban on Western media outlets, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. The CBC decried Russia’s ‘fake’ news law and blocking of Western websites, while The Atlantic resorted to worn-out Cold War clichés in “How Western News Is Getting Around Putin’s Digital Iron Curtain.”

The swift response by Silicon Valley to Russia’s invasion is merely an acceleration of the technologies of censorship. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ultimately played into the strategy of solidifying Russia as a convenient model for a war of rhetoric around “disinformation” and “state-sponsored news.” Google’s practice of delisting news, websites and blogs—or just prioritizing US state-owned or affiliated media—predates Russia’s invasion, but the formal gesture is now simply uncontroversial. And while the decisions by Apple or Microsoft have been lauded as moral—as by Georgetown University’s professor Neeru Paharia—the sincerity of that morality is open to question when the companies’ business interests are at stake through their brand signaling, especially to a younger market that treats mass consumer products as a reflection of personal values.

The hypocrisy is blatant when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and political interference in Canadian politics. While Silicon Valley companies are given carte blanche to remove Russian “state-sponsored news,” there is of course no equivalent treatment of state-sponsored news from Israel in spite of Israeli war crimes and continued violations of the Oslo Accords. Apple is not halting sales in Israel. Neither is the Canadian government giving out public-private contracts through the Department of National Defence to develop “propaganda filters” for weeding out Knesset-funded media and influence campaigns.

Canada’s Department of National Defence research branch (DRDC) has been developing publicly-funded censorship filters for news and social media, intended to target supposed Russian disinformation. Back in 2018, Montreal AI firm Nexalogy (a subsidiary of Toronto’s Datametrex) was contracted by the DRDC to develop an AI-based narrative filter and “publisher classification” system. The company trained their AI on discredited blacklists of independent news sources and developed a methodology based on an imaginary Gerasimov Doctrine the Russian state is supposedly using “to attack human cognition centering on distraction and manipulation.” Entering its next phase, Nexalogy announced the procurement of a $2.3 million contract earlier this February, and on March 31, Datametrex announced the completion of the first phase of the DRDC project to “stop the spread of misinformation and propaganda online.”

News release detailing the next phase of Nexalogy’s AI-based narrative filter and “publisher classification” system for the Department of National Defence.

The role of AI in training tools that would filter social media or other online platforms for content that is out of line with state policy is troubling not least because of how governance structures in Canada are already falling behind on privacy regulation and protection on even the most banal levels, as evidenced in the concerns raised around the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) with regard to automated consumer apps.

The robust integration of media filtering and censorship tools with private military contractors and the national security apparatus should arouse concern over how it will continue to shape the future of both publishing and consuming information online. With automated systems already trained on inaccurate data—Russia as the trial ground—“publisher classification” systems for analyzing, reporting, targeting and removing dissenting voices, accounts and publications set a dangerous precedent for tracking and blacklisting voices that challenge Canadian foreign policy online with accusations of “fake news.”

It is also troubling that the natural result of an accelerating and normalizing state of censorship both online and through hardware leads to progressive action, anti-war activities and publishing to be increasingly shaped not just by the known absence of information (who’s been booted from Twitter? Who was fired from First Look Media?), but, in an inversion of Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious quip on Iraq twenty years ago, by the ‘unknown unknowns’ that leave a significant information gap.

It is also crucial to look critically at the key stakeholders weighing in on the global policy instruments of internet governance and oversight. Earlier in May 2020, for example, the Canadian government partnered with Microsoft and the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) on the Community for Countering Election Interference campaign, to prevent the “spread of disinformation by foreign actors.” While the project is part of the 2018 Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, which proposes a framework for applying international human rights law in cyberspace, it is all the more crucial to scrutinize the role of private sector supporters of the Paris Call—like the notoriously Russophobic ASD, or Facebook and Google, and the prominent space occupied by the American Chamber of Commerce.

It ought to raise eyebrows when the German Marshall Fund asserts that “The extent to which the Paris Call will shape the implementation of cyber norms will be defined by the diversity and credibility of its signatories, the future shape of intergovernmental cyber norms negotiations, and the rise of national sovereignty in cyberspace.” With US interests largely shaping content and communications infrastructure upon which such policies are applied, what sovereignty can there be to speak of?

Unacceptable news and the strings of privatization

In the amnesia of headlines, idolatry comes swiftly. There is no shortage of irony in the idolization of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by Western media, given that the president himself waded into the political sphere from a career as a comedian. Much like the lionization of Juan Guaidó in Venezuela and Russia’s own Alexei Navalny, the media representation of Zelensky is vital to the story being presented to Canadians. Finding himself in an unenviable position, now upheld as a “courageous wartime president” and “defiant wartime leader” who has, according to Time anyway, suddenly achieved national transcendence and “united the world,” Zelensky hasn’t truly been in control of his country in the post-Poroshenko years since being popularly elected on a platform that promised to bring peace to Donbas.

The president’s ability to negotiate a peace agreement in the Donbas has been routinely subverted by a politically organized and bureaucratically entrenched far-right and ultra-nationalist movement (which has also sabotaged official demilitarization efforts by Ukrainian armed forces that sought compliance with the Minsk accords), while right-wing lobby groups in Canada have systematically pushed for heavier militarization in the eastern oblasts.

Several crucial moments were presented for peaceful resolution around the separatist issue, most of which relied on mutual demilitarization of the eastern region according to the Minsk agreements, and a rejection of Ukraine becoming a military front for NATO forces. In 2019, for example, Zelensky had failed to comply with requirements set out by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on presidential election monitoring, triggering criticism from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Zelensky also reneged on a crucial agreement for inclusion of Donbas in regional elections during the pandemic, which were also explicitly negotiated as part of the Minsk agreements.

It should also be concerning that reporting by Western media on human rights violations in the oblasts has consistently been selective, without any condemnation of Ukraine for its own infringements. A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the human rights situation in Ukraine from November 2019-February 2020—one of the crucial periods during the peace negotiations as the global COVID pandemic set in—identified numerous failings by Zelensky’s government to address Ukraine’s own human rights violations. The OHCHR identified “continued arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees, both in government-controlled territory and in territory controlled by the self-proclaimed ‘republics’.” Such concerns about arbitrary detention and torture by Ukrainian government-controlled territories have been repeated since 2014, when Amnesty International identified war crimes committed by the far-right Aidar Battalion in Luhansk.

The OHCHR further criticized the Ukrainian government’s “ad hoc arrangements” for the release of detainees, jeopardizing “process rights and fair trial guarantees”—another area where Zelensky’s government failed to comply with the Minsk accords on prisoner exchanges vital to de-escalation.

None of these issues have been treated with gravity by mainstream Canadian media. Rather, they have been dismissed as “Russian talking points” if mentioned at all, leaving a significant gap in the mainstream media’s touchpoints in historicizing the war in Ukraine.

This imposes a conception of what constitutes “acceptable news” which does not encompass the complexity of the undermined peace efforts in the eastern oblasts, Ukraine’s own human rights violations, the intensification of NATO’s military exercises and presence along Russia’s borders, and Canada’s role in militarizing a region that the OSCE was actively working toward demilitarizing. Certainly this does not justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but neither is it defensible for Canadian media to selectively portray Ukraine in a way that gives disproportionate weight to Zelensky’s agency while eliding external influences and pressures on Ukraine.

It is vital to understand that Zelensky’s hands have been virtually tied on an economic reform package that has been force-fed to Ukraine in exchange for financial aid from the Canadian and US governments, and from the International Monetary Fund, which has pushed the country to accelerate reforms. Established in 2014 and crucially defining a period of intensified austerity measures in Ukraine, an association of 25 Ukrainian organizations founded the Reanimation Package of Reforms, a key component of the Washington and Kyiv partnership with the stated intent to build “an independent, consolidated, democratic, legal, strong and authoritative Ukrainian state.” The funders of this reform package include the Canadian government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Democratic Network, the Omidyar Network, and the International Renaissance Foundation (a branch of Open Society Foundations).

Among the proposals published in the Reanimation Package’s Roadmap of Reforms, the coalition has urgently endorsed deregulation, foreign investment, venture capital development, and “large-scale and transparent privatization.” Clear alliances have been formed by Ukraine with the US and Israel, and more recently with the Gulf States for the purposes of wholesale privatization of Ukraine. For example, a $3 billion contract signed by Ukraine with the United Arab Emirates’ Mubadala Investment Company in February 2021, promised “the participation of the Emirati party in the program of privatization of state property in Ukraine.”

These economic reforms are inseparable from NATO encroachment on Ukraine and the country’s militarization. Back in 2019, former Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Waschuk and Jill Sinclair of the Department of National Defence emphasized how reforms and large-scale privatization would help Ukraine “continue to realize its Euro-Atlantic vision and aspirations,” musing over how to make “those foundational reforms that have already been achieved irreversible.” And international development funds delivered to Kyiv through Global Affairs Canada for various projects ranging from agricultural to parliamentary reforms have often come with the explicit stipulation that the Verkhovna Rada continue to enforce economic and political reforms outlined in the Reanimation Package, with the implication that Ukraine will eventually join NATO.

Image courtesy the Center for a New American Security

Symbolic sovereignty

Canadian conservative philosopher George Grant anticipated the disintegration of national self-determination when he attacked Canada’s acceptance of nuclear weapons and US supremacy over Canadian defence policy amid the Cold War. In Lament for a Nation, Grant referred to France becoming subservient to the US empire through the NATO alliance. Remarking on France’s reticence toward NATO under de Gaulle (withdrawing from military command structure but remaining part of the alliance), Grant wrote that surely the French president recognized that “he must try to limit the power of NATO if the existence of France as a country is to be maintained. American hegemony was obvious.”

Similarly, as the push-pull dynamic around Ukraine joining NATO has demonstrated repeatedly, NATO membership would not offer Ukraine any guarantee of sovereignty with its precarious position between NATO forces and Russia, and with any meaningful self-determination threatened by its absorption into an alliance that had already lost any multilateral integrity in the 1950s. Poland’s right-wing government has proudly embraced its alliance with the US, now, according to the New York Times, “basking in the glow of appreciative attention” as a frontline state for NATO. Latvia has seen waves of militarization and increasing Canadian military presence in the Baltics through Operation REASSURANCE. Sweden and Finland have for years been under pressure to give up their positions of neutrality and join NATO, only increasing in the past weeks.

But territorial integrity is only one part of negotiating what it means for a country to maintain its sovereignty, when the backbone of internet connectivity and communications technologies in the West is funded by—and based on the interests of—private tech corporations that contract for the US military or otherwise serve NATO’s interests. From content to infrastructure, Ukraine’s governance is being shaped by a media ecosystem that picks and chooses the narratives that inform economic and social policy, and in turn shape the portrait of Ukraine’s national identity.

The war in Ukraine has unfolded at a pivotal time in the normalization not only of content as a geopolitical weapon, but of a synchronization of internet infrastructure, connectivity, hardware, and global communications policy all as a neatly packaged extension of NATO and US interests. The danger is that the influence of private corporations and US state interests on global tech policy in the name of “democracy,” and the domination of the market by companies contracted to the US military, threaten to make changes to communications infrastructures that are, to echo the words of Waschuk and Sinclair, “irreversible.”

As I have documented elsewhere in Canadian Dimension, a few global monopolies like Amazon and SpaceX combine commercial activities targeting the average private consumer—delivering internet service as well as their own content—while serving military contracts that stipulate surveillance of those same communications infrastructures. Citing precedents from Wikileaks and Cambridge Analytica, to the targeting of phones by Pegasus spyware in Catalonia between 2017 and 2020, and weakened cybersecurity in Latin American countries whose border agencies relied on Windows XP, an article in the International Journal on Human Rights outlines some of the long-standing concerns regarding the geopolitical influence of media and communications companies:

Dependency on certain technologies to manage public administration are widespread as few companies in the world, located in even fewer countries, fulfil the requirements to provide governments with the software and hardware they need to conduct public affairs … The problem is not only about dependency on a foreign provider or applicable laws to digital data; the problem is also about the absence of public policies to address the issue at all levels. The situation of digital domination, close to colonialism, still fails to fill the top priorities of the global political agenda.

In light of the corrosive force of economic globalization on any country’s ability to be free of Western influence, or the competing technological interests of Russia, China and India, “frictionlessness” is a term that has been used to describe the increasingly complex nature of national sovereignty that extends beyond physical, geographic understandings of national borders. “Frictionless sovereignty” is used by Professor Ryan Bishop of the University of Southampton to link sovereignty to more transnational flows of people, finance and information, with frictionlessness made possible by full control over global capital under the tenet of “maximum benefit with minimum responsibility.”

This quality characterizes the ability of states to violate another country’s territorial borders in their interests outside of conventional military operations like that of Russia’s invasion—such as the US assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani on Iranian territory in 2020. In Ukraine’s case, the battleground of its media (which shapes its economic and social policy) shows how it is perfectly acceptable for Western companies and state interests to intercede in the country’s politics, while solely condemning Russia’s own business interests and propaganda campaigns (not least of which is the Russian state manipulation of the bitter Soviet victory over Nazi Germany to enflame a sentimental support for Russia’s invasion and “denazification” of Ukraine).

Both the mainstream treatment of “disinformation” around the war in Ukraine, and the media narrative building since, and preceding 2014, have profound ramifications, as the Canadian government is systematizing control over what is seen and permitted online, largely in step with US national security policy. As Silicon Valley’s ecosystems have cemented as a vital part of controlling the transnational front of otherwise localized wars, it is all the more urgent for the left to go beyond the surface-level of content wars, into the very scaffolding of network connectivity and information exchange. It would be fatal to continue to overlook how current events are being used to sharpen the tools of censorship that will continue to shape the internet to come.

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.


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