by Julius WiedemannMar 02, 2022
The 21stcentury warfare is much more than rifles and tanks. First of all, digital war is going on everywhere, 24x7. The surprising reluctance for people to accept what now seems quite obvious, the invasion of Ukraine ordered by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, has been accompanied by the also surprising global task force trying to counterbalance the old Soviet power with a digital warfare driven by private enterprises. From communication to entertainment, from payment methods to flight cancellations, everything seems to be up for grabs. Much more than the government orders, private companies, especially ones trading in stock markets, have decided to take risks and lose money in order to join an army for economic and lifestyle disruption. The fact that hackers would be involved in the Ukrainian invasion is not big news. What we probably have underestimated is the concerted effort from all parts to create a war in cyberspace as big as it is going on the ground. The one on the ground is certainly more visible, and makes us reflect about how destructive wars can be, and how worthless life seems to be in some places, sometimes.
When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy announced last week he had spoken to SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, and announced his fellowmen and women would receive more of its Starlink satellite internet terminals, the world started to understand that there was something new going on in terms of activism. After some hesitation from the West to go full on against Putin, considering that a military option was in principle, and still is, not an option, the effort of governments focused on what companies could do to disrupt the normal lives up north. Up until now, we are still discussing if the oil commerce should be cut off completely or disrupted, even though China will counterbalance that. But a lot more was still to come, and it had to come. The thing is that household consumption makes 60 per cent of the GDP worldwide. Meaning, the private sector accounts for over 60 per cent of GDP in most countries, with similar rates in dynamic emerging markets. Affecting normal lives through economic hardship may be now as effective as dropping bombs.
A couple weeks on, the world's big economies have hit Russia with a list of sanctions. TikTok, which is Chinese owned, declared on March 6, 2022, it would stop live streaming and the uploading of videos from Russia, while keeping an eye on the implications of new media laws signed on two days earlier. Netflix Inc has suspended its streaming in Russia, the company said on March 6. Facebook’s, now Meta, head of global affairs (and former UK deputy prime minister), Nick Clegg, said the company would “continue to do everything it could to restore its services". In an official statement, he said: "Soon millions of ordinary Russian will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out." After communications and entertainment, it was time for the financial markets to flex their muscles. Payments company PayPal brought down its services last week in Russia, after many other financial and tech companies started cutting down their operations, including Visa and Mastercard.
Needless to say, Russia would also seek every opportunity to disrupt Ukrainian channels. Ukrainian websites have been under relentless severe attack from allegedly Russian hackers since the beginning of the invasion. Sites belonging to the presidency, parliament, the cabinet, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Internal Affairs were hit by the well-known distributed denials of service (DDoS), which aims to knock servers down offline. The next step for Russia was to block Facebook, in a direct response to western countries. President Vladimir Putin is starting to look desperate. He mentioned that "Western sanctions on Russia were akin to a declaration of war” and also warned that an attempt to impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine would lead to “catastrophic consequences for the world". This is all pretty much the beginning. Putin has really that power in the world to use nuclear arms and to invade other countries.
Companies are backing down because people are standing up. Abraham Lincoln once said: “If there is anything that links the human to the divine, it is the courage to stand by a principle when everybody else rejects it.” When civil society, private enterprises, and governments altogether decide to take action and to somehow design a new social contract for the benefit of a brighter future, we start seeing hope that people can work together. I keep repeating this phrase in many columns: “Technology will set us free”.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.