UCL Uncovering Politics

Global Tech Companies and the War in Ukraine

Episode Summary

This week we ask: What has been the role of global tech companies during the war in Ukraine? And is better regulation needed?

Episode Notes

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has created Europe’s largest refugee crisis in a generation and caused major disruption to the world’s economy and energy systems. In Ukraine itself, civilian life has been transformed and, in many cases, destroyed by the conflict.

One notable dimension of the war has been the intervention of major tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and SpaceX. Through multiple rapid responses they have successfully inhibited Russia’s information warfare strategy. These steps include a targeted digital blockade of Russia and ensuring Ukraine’s internet infrastructure is protected from online and offline attacks. 

A new report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change analyses what the tech companies have done, explores implications for power and democracy, and makes recommendations for how states and tech companies should change their approach.

This week we are joined by one of the authors, Dr Melanie Garson. Melanie is both Cyber Policy Lead and acting director of the Internet Policy Unit at theTony Blair Institute for Global Change and Associate Professor in Conflict Resolution & International Security in the UCL Department of Political Science.


Mentioned in this episode

Episode Transcription

Season 7 Episode 6

Global Tech and the War in Ukraine

10 November 2022


tech companies, ukraine, internet, conflict, russia, countries, global, companies, people, crises, tech, providing, access, thinking, information, support, enabled, government, questions, paper


Emily McTernan, Melanie Garson


Emily McTernan  00:05

Hello, this is UCL Uncovering Politics. This week we ask what has been the role of global tech companies during the war in Ukraine, and is better regulation needed?


Hello, my name is Emily McTernan and welcome to UCL Uncovering Politics, the podcast at the School of Public Policy and the Department of Political Science at University College London. 


Russia's invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, has created Europe's largest refugee crisis in a generation and caused major disruption to the world's economy and energy systems. In Ukraine itself, civilian life has been transformed and in many cases destroyed by the conflict. One notable dimension of law has been the intervention of major tech companies, including Facebook, Google and SpaceX. Through multiple rapid responses, they have successfully inhibited Russia's information warfare strategy. These steps include a targeted digital blockade of Russia, and ensuring Ukraine's internet infrastructure is protected from online and offline attacks. A new report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change analyses what tech companies have done, explores implications for power and democracy, and makes recommendations for how both states and tech companies to change their approach. 


One of the authors Dr. Melanie Garson is both Cyber Policy Lead and acting Director of the Internet Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, and Associate Professor in Conflict Resolution and International Security in the UCL Department of Political Science. And I'm delighted that she joins me now. Welcome Melanie to Uncovering Politics.


Melanie Garson  01:51

Hi Emily, thank you for having me.


Emily McTernan  01:53

It's great to have you here. Let's start with a brief explanation of the topic at hand if we can, what kinds of companies are we talking about here? And why are they playing a role in the Ukraine conflict to begin with?


Melanie Garson  02:06

So generally, and the focus of this paper looks at the companies that exist throughout the internet stack. And what I mean by that is the companies that have a hand in supporting communications, from the very sub-sea cables that help support the internet, all the way up to the information that runs on the internet. And as we've seen up to the satellite, up to space, to help support the communication systems. So that involves everything from when we think about usually we think about people like the big platforms. But so Facebook and Google because we think about the information element of it. But that also includes companies that are more structural, such as content distribution networks, people like Fastly, and Cloudflare. And we're also thinking about the companies providing fundamental cybersecurity like Microsoft, as well as Google and others.


Emily McTernan  03:12

Fabulous and you call them global or big tech. So so where are these companies based? Why do we call them global?


Melanie Garson  03:20

Well because they are, a large proportion of them we have become familiar with them being largely US based. But in today's day and age, they operate with big presence all over the world, and with a hand in being able to respond to crises very quickly all over the world.


Emily McTernan  03:41

Great. And our listeners will have seen images on the news of bombings and deaths in Ukraine. Access to the internet might seem relatively trivial in light of such horrific suffering, you might ask why should we care if people can or can't access their Facebook? Or even about Russian propaganda online? Could you explain to our listeners why it matters who has control over cyberspace?


Melanie Garson  04:02

Well, access to the internet or communications infrastructure is critical in in any campaign. So access, communications, infrastructure is a fundamental part of command and control, as well as cutting off communications before any kind of invasion is a part of that element of surprise. Now, why it became particularly important in this conflict is because there's certain aspects of how we live today and how we interact with the internet today, that could take away or give one party another an advantage. 


A good example of that would be geolocation data. So if we're providing information, for instance, where people are running to hide, or if that information can be accessed where people are running to hide from a particular bombing, then that information could actually be used by the other side to actually target their bombing more effectively. So one of the things that happened quite early on in the war is Google shifted and turned off a lot of mapping data for people in Ukraine. So they couldn't be targeted. 


So this becomes part of a much bigger picture of how the conflict can play out in today's day and age. So the UK, it's not just about the information. And it's not just about the kind of propaganda or information warfare that we can see. But also, where the in the dissemination of information, another example would be right at the beginning of the conflict. One of the first things that happened on the 24th of February, is Microsoft had to defend against a cyber attack on the Ukraine government systems. Now those government systems were important for distributing information to citizens. So this is where it all becomes part of a completely new sort of interface or expanding surface that becomes part of warfare.


Emily McTernan  06:17

Thank you for those fantastic examples. Is this a phenomenon that's arisen in Ukraine? Or have these companies played a significant role in other conflicts in recent years? Is this the sort of modern face of warfare we're gonna see a lot more of this from now on? Or is this actually something that has been more of a feature of warfare and other conflicts?


Melanie Garson  06:33

In this one has been in the most extreme context. So we've seen the intervention of tech companies in geopolitical crises, for better or for worse, and the one that usually jumps to people's mind at the outset was Facebook and Myanmar and what happened with that. Whether they were complicit in the genocide of Rohingya people for allowing information to flow that were could have possibly. Well, it was then sort of claimed that this assisted in being able to identify and target and rile up the heat against Rohingya people. So that's on the other side. 


We also have Starling previously, so that's SpaceX [???] coming in previously, to help in Tonga when the sub-sea cable was severed, and there was no internet available and providing satellite communication to try and bridge that gap. Now, in your mind that our entire livelihoods and the way that we live today, and as countries roll out to increase digitalization, whether that's digitalization of health records, or being able to access social security, if the internet goes down, then life as people know it for a lot goes down very quickly.


Emily McTernan  07:58

Great, thank you. For those examples. We've got Microsoft defending the Ukraine government's systems, we've got the mapping data being turned off on for relevant parties. I wonder if we could also discuss a little bit the kinds of offensive measures that have been taken against Russia so far, and what the effects of those actions have been? So perhaps you could talk us through a digital blockade and what's involved in that?


Melanie Garson  08:20

Yeah, well the I mean, in the digital but blockade, it's a lot involved involved in in being offensive, it's a lot more like deterrence by denial, or denying a lot of Russia's strategic ambitions. So another good example of that is where we have new assets that could become targets. So again, going to into Microsoft, who have been particularly active they move, so going back to thinking about digitalization, and how many of our records are fundamental to our government providing public services. The, sorry about that Emily, so going back to these government providing public services, Microsoft moved a huge amount of all the data assets that was sitting in datacenters in Ukraine out into the cloud outside the country, but partly so it doesn't fall into Russia's hands and can be misused, but also to the government can keep on functioning. So if anything were to happen to those data centres. But there's also been from obviously he we've seen on the other side, a huge exit from tech companies from Russia, and that's with. 


Now, some didn't automatically go voluntarily, there was incremental bands from some of the towards some of the tech companies because of the argument over provision of information. What's interesting about that, that created a lot of tension for some tech companies who wanted to be able to still provide access to information to Russians, but either because of bans or because of the sanctions regime needed to exit. And this was where we saw some real creative thinking from some tech companies, for instance, CloudFlare, providing VPN, virtual private networks free to Russians, so that they can bypass the blocks and be able to access information of their choice freely.


Emily McTernan  10:27

Great. So it sounds like it's it seems very important, then to keep Russian civilians online and make sure they're having access to a range of information sources, as well as their own government media. Is that the kinds of things you're thinking about the ways in which tech companies can enable us...?


Melanie Garson  10:44

Absolutely. And they've enabled by doing things that they haven't done before. Like particularly some of the platforms, suddenly hopping onto the dark web and having a dark web mirror site. So that again, that would be something that was accessible through a different mechanism. So people can have information. Because on the other side the Russians, were then going back to short or to shortwave radio, they were actually going back to old tech, and people were digging out their radios. And there was an increase of broadcasting for things like that had really scaled down like from the BBC, sort of upping their radio service. So that information or free information flow could be out there, because of the bans and the blocks on most of the platforms. If you stayed in YouTube has still been allowed to operate because that would be probably wide scale mutiny, if it wasn't able to operate.


Emily McTernan  11:44

Great, that's fascinating. And so you say they're not offensive measures, you said, you're seeing these as very much kind of you rejected the idea that there were offensive measures being taken against Russia.


Melanie Garson  11:57

It's not necessarily that offensive. So a lot of time when we think about offensive then sort of people's mind jump and think, okay, are these companies conducting cyber attacks? And that's absolutely not? What I think, what it is, is that the absolutely, confluence or the coordination in effect, and not necessarily, actually wasn't even a coordinated response. But the amalgamation of all these responses of tech companies have actually tipped the balance of power. And that tip, the balance of power has enabled Ukraine's offensive. Sort of a slightly different, because they've been able to create this strategic blockade. 


So they've been able to we can Russia's attempts at cyber attacks do providing defence because of being able to bring in measures. So Google sort of recalibrated how Google Search works, so that people had access to information like how to hide or where to be there was a lot of sort of what were the most popular search terms, and how did that operate because of these sort of confluence of all these actions, then that has lessened Russia's success in their campaign. And by the same token enabled Ukraine to really sort of rebalance what they were at the outset, the much weaker power, people thought.


Emily McTernan  13:24

Fascinating. And one of the examples you raise in the paper is the case of Facebook initially permitting hate speech, I believe and the Russians encouraging violence and then changing mine. So it sounds like these tech companies have been a bit vulnerable to push back from the Russian government or change their minds about some of the policies they've tried out in conflict. Can you talk us through that? And how you think that should have been navigated?


Melanie Garson  13:47

I think this is one of the really interesting things. And it's one of the things we talked about in this paper that we were tracking is that obviously you have tech companies making decisions that they have never really had to make under extreme pressure. And, and sometimes they are getting it wrong. Now, Facebook was particularly under the spotlight because of what happened in Myanmar. And you get caught in these tensions of free speech arguments, something we're going to see very much with the sorts of the Twitter buyout. And so at the outset, it was said, well, you can't have the free flowing of hate speech. And at that same time, they weren't saying what people have allowed freedom of expression, particularly people in Ukraine to express their horror and their dissent and their general feelings about what was happening to them. 


And Russia then, of course, that this was fueling hate speech. And Facebook was an eventually Instagram kicked out of Russia, but it creates but what they've done is it's bounded so you can only express those feelings. about Russians, if you're actually geographically located in Ukraine. So it's not it's create there are boundaries on where that's actually allowed, and where it sort of otherwise it sort of cracked down on. Now, that's brings us into a whole nother realm of the challenges for content moderation as a whole with these big tech companies, that it's an interesting area of where policy is being made on the fly. And one of the things we call for in this paper is actually if tech companies are going to have these roles, if they're going to be so influential and integral in these geopolitical crises, that they need to be able to have thought these things out in advance and have a transparency, a transparent process, of how they're going to calibrate their interventions. Because this is, and Facebook I must admit out to the companies have the ones that did set up a sort of a geopolitical crisis board, or a crisis board to deal with this situation. 


But more and more tech companies are going to have to have that clarity, because are they going to intervene in every conflict in this way? If not, how are they going to pick and choose? And what happens if it's a civil conflict inside one country? How are they going to decide what their decision making is for their presence in that particular conflict?


Emily McTernan  16:33

That leads us really nicely to the next thing I wanted to talk about, which is very much about the way that we're going to regulate or support tech companies in these interventions and how this is going to look. 


So in the paper, I take it, there's suggestions that the international community will support tech companies and the tech companies will form more consistent and perhaps transparent ways of formulating policy when they go into conflicts. But I was wondering, you might worry should unelected tech companies have such an influence on conflicts and crises? So you might think why frame the issue in terms of support for tech companies from the international community? Rather than asking how should the international community be regulating controlling tech companies actions in determining the appropriate ways to intervene? 


One might worry very much about who these tech companies are accountable to and whether there should be some kind of diplomatic oversight by states. So I guess that with you making the visit of regulating and controlling tech company, rather than generally supporting them as they make their own policies about what they're going to do when faced with a conflict?


Melanie Garson  17:42

I think there's two elements. And I think this isn't a sort of a call to say there should be no regulation of tech companies. And there's obviously a need across the board and there already is on thinking about how tech companies need to be regulated both on whether that's anti competitive practices, or whether that is on the questions of content moderation and online safety, and where they have to fall in with sort of global standards or national standards that are for the good of sort of humanity or individual nations. 


I think that aside I think what we're seeing today is that tech companies in these situations, and when we look at how to the tech companies are very much consolidating through the internet stack now, so we have tech kind of a commercial representation at the satellite level, all the way down to the subsea cables. So they as well as the provision of hardware, as and information flow will provide good provision throughout the whole of the internet as we have it. 


Now, what that has meant, and as commercial entities, they've been able to be a lot more agile come in a lot more quickly than governments would usually be able to in these situations, and subsequently, governments do come into partnership with them. But they've been able to act super quickly. And and that is something that should be harnessed for this a global good if we can do it. But and to do that, it has to be some level of greater partnership, rather than just regulation. So there's as I say so it's a little bit of both. And that means enabling tech companies and certainly, and not just the massive ones because what we do have is you have like, particularly on the content distribution network, you have smaller companies that can have a massive impact. A company like Fastly, that if they go out some of the global Internet goes out for hours and hours and hours. It's it's a, there's a blip in their provision service. So it's about making sure that companies can sometimes be part of these conversations. So both countries know how they're going to act. And also that conversation is are they going too far? Or where can they be part of making sure that what the global community is trying to achieve is aligned as well. Because you're right, these are commercial companies with commercial incentives. But a lot of them actually and this is what's interesting, if you read a lot of the accounts of why they intervene, a lot of CEO statements was about their moral obligation and feeling. And that's wonderful. They did not say that the company shouldn't have moral obligation and feeling but it's also trying to get the consistency of that, because then, if picking and choosing according to individual moral obligation, that is destabilising on the overall system.


Emily McTernan  21:04

Great. So we're looking for consistency. Is that consistency of particular tech companies or consistency amongst the tech companies? So predictable what Meta and Facebook,we're going to do every time and predictable, but different what Google is going to do every time, are you thinking that very much the tech companies as a whole need to have a consistent approuch?


Melanie Garson  21:22

It's a little bit of both. And actually, we talk about that in the paper. So there's both consistency within and we talk about whether they should be some sort of board where the tech companies or some sort of forum, where they can have that exchange of information where they can work together when you know, if there's somebody notices, a blip in outage and think of who's the best place to so that not, you know, you also don't want wasted resources, you've got a huge amount of resources, how can that be work between them to have an even distribution if you want of contribution as well. But also within the relationship with the global community and how they're acting, because you also don't want necessarily their action to undermine efforts either. 


A good example of that might be and there's a question about this, when when the sanctions regime came the tech companies, a lot of many of them did a mass mass exit some of them above and beyond what was required of the sanctions regime. Now, that's an interesting situation, depending on how you feel that sanctions should be operated. But if you feel that sanctions are best operated as a slow turn of a screw, if you want, that you take a little bit, and then you apply more pressure, and you apply more pressure in mass exit, could actually derail what you're trying to achieve, to some extent, a mass exit of all the tech companies mean to Russia goes looks elsewhere, likely to China to plug their supply chain gap. So then, are you losing some of the balance and control in the system? And these are all sorts of questions that still need to be unpacked a little bit more.


Emily McTernan  23:12

Great, thank you for that. It's very helpful. I wonder if we could talk a little bit more about what your what the paper suggests state should do and the international community should do? So. So what kind of steps have already been taken by states? What's the appropriate level of investment? And what should happen next? So what's the what's the idea about the ways in which the state, the state, can concretely support these tech companies. So they're going to have more consistent policy boards where they can discuss with each other, make sure that they're not acting in ways that conflict with each other unhelpfully, what the state's do in the international community?


Melanie Garson  23:45

I think, at the first point, and it's not, you know, it's not just about the tech company, at first point states need to recognise the fundamental need for a secure, safe, and interoperable internet that is constantly functioning and accessible to everybody. And that's why Joe Biden when he bought together and it was in the end being 60 countries and partners on the declaration for the future of the internet was a big step forward. And that provision of ensuring the internet doesn't just mean about, you know, it's also involves hardware. This is where one of the big questions about kind of semiconductors and the chips war that we're seeing going on so it's also the check is a regulatory policy. It's a security policy, to make sure that everyone has that access to the internet that is so fundamental to everybody's livelihoods and well being globally. 


So what we sort of posited in the paper is a kind of NATO for the internet design with the the internet being the thing that needs to be protected. And and thinking about how countries could, you know who are part of that coalition. And and that includes countries that we don't naturally think of. So there's a big split, if you wanted the term like minded or not like minded, I particularly like it in this sort of term, because I think everybody needs to have the access to the global, free interoperable internet so I find the countries that want to be part of this coalition that are enabled by this, I would have some sort of backup some sort of almost like in an Article Five backup, if something happens to the internet, that somebody else has got their back. 


Now, of course, that somebody else getting their back because of the nature of how the internet's constructed today means that you have to have that conversation with the tech companies as part of that paradigm. So I think that that's one element that's really important. The other element that we talked about, is that how countries across the world need to build a tech forward foreign policy. And that is a lot of foreign policy capacity still doesn't fully understand all the aspects of the tech ecosystem. And by doing that, they're losing sometimes sight of key areas where there's pressure in the system, particularly when there's negotiations and what are quite obscure things like internet standards, but do have the potential to fragment the internet. So there's a good big part of how capacity building within tech within countries need to be built to understand the tech better, and also how we can enable that to then have greater coordination. But most importantly, it's putting not the tech companies front and centre or not, countries front and center, but actually the internet funds and centre that needs to be accessible to all.


Emily McTernan  27:05

Thank you for that. I was wondering, so you mentioned their like minded and not like minded states, or the thought that some states are not going to want to participate in this NATO for the internet. Is that going to be a problem do you think? I mean, how do you envision I would assume, perhaps somewhere like Russia, isn't going to want to join in? Will it be that only some countries have this protected access then to the internet? Or do you see it as a kind of thing that we owe to all global citizens that they have access to the internet? And so one ought to intervene if say, a country decides to shut its citizens off from the internet? Or would you be seeing it very much as only supporting as a kind of collective support group for those that wish to preserve the internet for their citizens? What's the thinking on that?


Melanie Garson  27:46

Yeah, that's a really, really interesting set of questions, and so. So the one that we've seen very actively recently, if we think about sort of how Iran has shut down and and sort of increasing use of Internet shutdowns as a [??] political power, and how there was discussion, actually, between the US government and starting thinking about how could there be an alternative way to provide internet for people again. Because it's not just about information, it's also about their businesses and their livelihoods and being able to access health records and all sorts of elements of daily life. 


But it's the one of the and there is a bigger question of internet fragment, fragmentation, and particularly this sort of ideological sort of push and pull that's underpinning the politics of the internet at the moment. But I think part of where we look at this digital infrastructure, defence alliances, particularly for countries that are hitting the tension point, that perhaps that their internet infrastructure, is built on, perhaps Chinese infrastructure, which would give them allegiance to one country, but perhaps philosophically, their interests don't necessarily align with China. 


And how would they be able to gain some autonomy back within whether it's voting in standards bodies or voting on key issues, tech or non tech related, that they may feel constrained not to be able to vote according to interests because of how their tech infrastructure or tech supply chain is constructed. And whether that by providing kind of an underwriting guarantee that says if anything were to happen to your supply, we would be able to come in and make sure that you're not cut off. That you are able to still access all the beneficial aspects of the internet that keep your country going.


Emily McTernan  29:56

Thank you, Melanie, for everything we've discussed today about what's going on with global technology and the Ukraine war and what tech companies and states should do in future to coordinate better response. 


We've been looking at Dr. Melanie Garson's paper for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, coauthored with Pete Furlong. It's entitled 'Disruptors and defenders: What Ukraine was taught us about the power of global tech companies'. As ever, the details are in the show notes for this episode, which also include a link to the paper.


Next week, we are looking at the role of the UK constitutional watchdogs, with Professor Robert Hazel and Sir Peter Riddle from the UCL Constitution Unit. 


Remember to make sure you don't miss out on that or future episodes of ucln primary politics. All that you need to do is subscribe. You can do so on Apple, Google Podcasts, and whatever podcasts providor you use.


I'm Emily McTernan. This episode is researched by Conor Kelly and produced by Eleanor Kingwell Banham. Our theme music is written and performed by John Mann. This has been UCL uncovering politics. Thank you for listening