Analysis | The Domestic and Global Ramifications of Russia’s Disconnection from the Internet
Over the past few months, Russia has been undergoing a series of steps meant to create a sovereign and separate Internet. In fact, much of this process was initiated from allegations that the Russian government aimed to influence the results of the 2016 US Presidential election. In response, the State Duma began the process of drafting a law to declare sovereignty of its own Internet as well as defend against foreign cyberattacks. In a note attached to the bill, it particularly notes the aggressiveness of the US National Cyber Security Strategy adopted in September 2018 and frames the bill as a response to that. On May 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally signed the law in question, which aims to expand government control over the Internet. However, this is far from the first step that the Russian government has taken in regard to the Internet. Russia has recently both banned the Telegram application as well as passed legislation that bans 'fake news' and disrespect towards the Russian government online.
What does the new Internet bill actually entail?
According to Russia’s TASS agency, the legislation will centralize the communication network within Russia by enabling the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media to stabilize the Russian Internet (Runet) in case of a perceived threat or disconnection from the World Wide Web. In anticipation that Russia may need to be disconnected from the World Wide Web, the legislation puts into place plans to set up an alternative domain name system (DNS). This would require all Internet providers in Russia to install equipment in order to route Russian web traffic solely through in-country servers.
The legislation also gives power to the Cabinet of Ministers to determine whether or not a communications provider actually has the right to direct traffic through their hardware. If they decide to give that right to a communications provider, the Russian government also has the right to determine the specifications and requirements for their systems. Per the new legislation, Russia’s state communication agency, Roskomnadzor, will further receive an “off switch” to deploy that would conceivably turn off the Internet at will.
Conceptually, this law presupposes a case where the Runet would need to be disconnected from the rest of the global network infrastructure due to threats to its stable and safe operation on Russian territory. However, many critics claim that this bill strikes a huge blow to Internet freedom in Russia. The capabilities that the Russian government now has could usher in a new era of widespread censorship.
However, there are far worse domestic problems than purely censorship.
While the concern for many Russians is connected to censorship and the ability to access websites like Facebook or illicit services such as Telegram, additional problems arise when a government is granted the capacity to switch off the Internet on a national level. Consider a traffic light system suddenly turning off in the middle of rush hour or a high-tech medical system that, without warning, switches off during a complex operation. Because of the complexity and interconnectedness of the Internet as it stands, scenarios such as these could very well happen. Even if these disaster situations did not occur, many websites would stop working as most require multiple international servers to function — servers which would no longer be permitted to operate within Russia. According to Andrew Blum, the author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, “Every [web] page is made of 1,000 different things. If you’re running a website in Russia, you’d have to figure out where everything is coming from.”
Furthermore, the installation of this hardware mandated by the Russian government would result in slower Internet speeds and end any and all innovation in the Internet of Things. Interestingly, the creation of products like driverless cars and telemedicine are all initiatives that have publicly been on the Russian government’s agenda. However, with a decrease in Internet speed – there is little to no possibility that any of those technological advancements would be possible.
While Russia might face catastrophic problems, the global Internet does not fare much better.
Although this motivation to isolate and control the Runet is nothing new, the creation of this sovereign Internet would have global ramifications for sites outside of Russia. Certain Russian websites may not function because they route through international sites and international sites based in other countries could malfunction if they route through Russia. The lack of certainty as to which sites may and may not operate could cause mass confusion on a global scale.
The Internet functions as well as it does because there are multiple ways of transferring information from Point A to Point B. Even if one pathway is unavailable to a user, other pathways accommodate and the flow of information continues. What the Russian government aims to do with this new legislation would transform the Internet’s greatest asset into its greatest weakness. With only one pathway for information to travel, Russia would introduce a much higher rate of failure for every user in and outside the Runet.
Members of Russian government promoting the new legislation likely wish that they could also implement a digital structure comparable to the Great Firewall of China. However, it is a bit too late for that. The Chinese Internet was built with a mindset of limited international exchange hubs – meaning that there are few and therefore easily controllable routes to access the World Wide Web. By contrast, several hundred and likely many more such routes exist within Russia, of whose existence Roskomnadzor and the Russian government are largely unaware. Moreover, because China’s Internet developed in a vacuum, the Russian government substituted many of the popular social networks with local systems that are monitored. Within Russia, too many citizens are already using and are reliant upon these networks to even consider shutting them down and replacing them with local alternatives.
From a political standpoint, Russia’s disconnection from the Internet makes sense. It is framed in a largely protectionist light against the United States’ aggressive National Cybersecurity Strategy, to prevent foreign meddling and attacks from other world powers. Furthermore, by blocking out negative commentary, Russian politicians might ponder, it becomes easier to control its local population. However, the technical and practical ramifications are still enormous and need to be reconsidered by Russian officials before they go too far and users of the Runet retaliate, something that the government would hugely regret.
As of now, however, the very nature of the law – namely its protectionist and security-based motivations – shields it from any kind of negative commentary or push back. At least according to the Kremlin and President Putin, nothing is more important than safety and stability within Russia.
From the Kremlin (essentially Putin’s voice), check the 1 May release at 13:00 local, safety is a key word: http://en.kremlin.ru/acts/news/60430
Info. on the senators that authored the bill, and the Duma deputy who is wanted by the UK: https://www.occrp.org/en/27-ccwatch/cc-watch-briefs/9591-russian-duma-passes-new-law-to-prevent-foreign-meddling-in-internet
General reference for the reasoning behind the law:
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GLOBALICA by Wolfgang Wildner by Wolfgang Wildner, Flickr
All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.