Russia is creating its independent Internet
Thanks to a law signed by President Vladimir Putin, Russia aims to create a “Sovereign Internet” effectively a parallel web run entirely on Russian servers. That would allow Moscow to keep the Internet operating in the event of a foreign cyberattack aimed at disabling it.
To do so, Internet providers will be required to install equipment which Russia could use to separate itself from the worldwide web at the flick of a “kill switch”. The technology is meant to reroute all external traffic through Russian-controlled nodes while creating a back-up domain name system to help the country’s Internet function independently.
Russia’s Internet service providers must have so-called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) network equipment installed. This tech can identify the source of traffic and filter content. The law also requires the creation of a homegrown version of the Internet’s address book: the Domain Name System (DNS). This would make it easier for authorities to redirect traffic without Russian users noticing, effectively creating an alternate reality within Russia’s borders. This part is technically complex, however, and won’t be ready to launch yet.
This way, Russia’s dependence on foreign systems would be vastly reduced. It also uses a technique known as Deep Packet Inspection, or DPI, to centralize filtration powers in the hands of Russian censors, who have previously relied on Internet providers to block access to banned content.
Political scientist says that the Russian act of restriction is framed as a precaution, but it’s a means of control of the Russian government over the information space.
“Regarding Wikipedia… It’s better to replace it with the new Great Russian Encyclopedia in electronic form … This will be, in any case, reliable information in a good modern form”, Putin said, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti.
Russia let its Internet grow largely untrammeled until 2012 when Putin’s return to the presidency met with street protests organized via social media. The Government responded with an aggressive crackdown on online dissent: opposition pages were put on a list of banned websites, dozens of people went to prison for liking and re-posting material, and independent news websites were brought to heel. However, this ad-hoc system was seen as inefficient.
In 2014, Mr. Putin declared the Internet a “CIA project” able to weaken Russia’s sovereignty. Some pro-Kremlin figures spoke of emulating China’s Great Firewall – a mix of technologies and laws designed to regulate the Internet domestically, whose architects were invited to Moscow to share advice.
The crackdown intensified after 2017 when opposition leader Alexei Navalny aired a video of an anti-corruption investigation which racked up more than 20m views on YouTube to help spark the largest nationwide protests since the Soviet Union collapsed. In 2018, Russia restricted access to almost 650,000 websites.
Yet Russia’s late start meant it lacked both the infrastructure and the human resources to control the Internet as effectively as Beijing. China boasts its own hugely popular messaging services, such as WeChat, and has a reported 2m people who police public opinion online.
By contrast, Roskomnadzor, the communications ministry’s watchdog, has just over 3,000 employees.
Roskomnadzor made its most ambitious effort to ban Telegram, the messaging service, last year, accusing it of failing to comply with FSB requests to share user data. The attempt to block the app was a disastrous failure. Pavel Durov, Telegram’s Russian founder, rerouted its traffic through cloud hosting services, forcing censors into a game of whack-a-mole that saw them temporarily take down more than 16m IP addresses, including their website while having little effect on Telegram.
Undeterred by the Telegram ban, the FSB recently made a similar demand to Yandex, Russia’s largest tech company, which already shares some data within authorities.
Experts say Russia’s justifications for shutting the country off from the global Internet are too vague to support such sweeping action. These scenarios include a threat to network “integrity” that would prevent it from securing user communications; anything that would affect its ability to function such as a natural disaster; and “deliberate destabilizing informational pressure from outside or within”.
Maintaining the DPI equipment alone may cost as much as Rbs134bn ($2bn) a year – seven times more than estimated, and many of the law’s technical provisions have yet to be clarified. Roskomnadzor reportedly hired RDP.RU, a company partly owned by state-run Rostelecom, to supply the DPI equipment before the bill was even passed.
When Russian troops seized Crimea in 2014, they quickly took over the peninsula’s main Internet exchange point and cable connections to the mainland. That was the gold standard to achieve total information dominance.
Activists fear the Internet isolation plan will do the same to Russian citizens. “It’ll be a different Internet. It won’t be as quick or secure as it is now,” says Artem Kozlyuk, head of privacy rights group Roskomsvoboda. “Blocking will be non-transparent. It might take months until someone finds out there was some sort of internal order.
The system could simply help Roskomnadzor enforce existing law, which is ostensibly aimed at preventing terrorism and child pornography but is often redirected to suppress dissent.
The new Iron Curtain?
Centralizing control over Russia’s Internet in a bid to make it more secure could make it more vulnerable to foreign attacks. Where the Internet is more centralized and there is one state provider, then there is more risk of external meddling.
Russia might also be trying to safeguard itself from the consequences of its cyber operations. The WannaCry and NotPetya attacks which ravaged businesses globally with ransomware and were blamed on Moscow did considerable damage in Russia, taking some state-owned companies’ systems offline.