Left – pages from “Sobornoye Ulozheniye” (Russian: Соборное уложение ) – a Russian legal code from the XVII c., wherein leaving the country’s borders was first declared a criminal act. Right – a map of the root DNS servers (rootservers.org)
- The Internet is perceived by Russian authorities as a primary threat for the security of the Kremlin’s hold on power.
- The imposition of control over the Russian-speaking Internet has been raised to the rank of a target for a Russian “national project” named “Digital Economics”
- Dubbed “Sovereign Internet”, the security system installed on top of Russia’s internet infrastructure can be used by the authorities to cut access to the global Internet for all users on Russian territory.
- The Kremlin is looking to borrow the Chinese model for a closed Internet, but this model cannot be replicated in Russia with the same level of efficiency.
On December 14, 2018, a bill was introduced in the Russian Parliament, supposedly aimed at “safeguarding the long-term and stable operation of Internet” on the territory of the Russian Federation. Its authors are Andrey Klishas, Head of the Federation Council (the upper house of Russia’s parliament) Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building, Lyudmila Bokova – First Deputy Chair of the Federation Council and Andrey Lugovoy – a Duma member from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). The law was adopted at first reading in February 2019.
This draft of amendment of a number of Russian laws is intended to bring about an unprecedented level of control of Russian censorship and secret services over the communications and Internet traffic on the territory of the Russian Federation.
A brief summary
The organised efforts of Putin’s regime to control the Internet in Russia begin in 2012. The presidential elections which took place in March 2012 served to reassert and legitimise Putin’s power, with his victory being declared after the first round. Protests against the regime which had started in the final months of 2011 (to become known as “the Snow Revolution“) intensified in reaction to the elections and continued on and off until mid-2013.
The protest movement, which is unprecedented in the history of Putin’s Russia, directed the authorities’ attention at the threat posed for the regime by uninhibited Internet communication.
With its potential to provide a free medium for the dissemination of information, for the organisation of and communication between opposition members, for the formation of opposition leadership structure, for the maintaining of links with the Russian diaspora in the free world, and for coordinating the actions of opposition groups located thousands of miles apart, the Internet was identified by Russian authorities as a first-rate threat to the security of the Kremiln’s rule.
2012 also saw the establishment of the Russian register of forbidden domain names. The state would require internet providers to block websites in the list which would be regularly updated. The register is maintained by Roskomnadzor – a federal service within Russia’s Ministry of Communications and Mass Media, staffed by nearly 4000 officials around the whole country, and charged with the monitoring and filtering of Internet resources accessible from Russia.
In the summer of 2014, an exercise took place in Russia, aimed at checking how government services can handle the country’s being shut off from the worldwide Internet. This, as well as others similar exercises, were motivated to a large degree by a sense of insecurity of Russia’s authorities with regard to the reliability of the country’s access to the Internet, in light of recently imposed sanctions after the annexation of the Crimea. The then-minister of communications, Nikolay Nikiforov provided information in the media.
With the imposition and widening of sanctions, hopes proved futile that the shortages of specialised network hardware and equipment would be filled by Russian companies. Instead, Russia began importing more and more equipment from China, and for a while it appeared that China is taking a leading part in the construction of Russia’s systems for the monitoring Internet traffic and its closing off within the country’s borders. In June 2016 Putin and Xi Jinping signed a joint statement for their cooperation in cyberspace.
Russia took initial steps but eventually turned down direct cooperation with Huawei in the manufacturing of data storage hardware. This was most probably due to security concerns, unwillingness for long-term commitment with China as a sole source of hardware and software, as well as suspicions that the Chinese will take the opportunity to spy on Russia’s communications infrastructure if given a chance to participate in its improvement.
Unofficial information surfaced in 2019 that Roskomnadzor has received an affirmative answer to its requests towards Google for the modification of search results for specific search terms. This was a victory for Roskomnadzor, which had been putting pressure on Google on this matter, including by imposing a fine of 500 000 rubles on Google in 2018.
The application Telegram Messenger was released in 2013. It allows encrypted peer-to-peer chat for a pair of users, without the messages being stored at any intermediate point between them. The application also allows for messages to be automatically deleted from the users’ devices, so that no trace remains from their conversation. In April 2018, in the execution of a court order, Roskomnadzor directed Russian internet providers to start blocking Telegram. The reason for that was that Telegram refused provide its encryption keys to the Federal Security Service (FSB), which would allow Russian authorities to access to Telegram’s users’ communication. Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov told media that a request will be directed at Apple and Google to block access from Russia to the mobile application version of Telegram on their platforms App Store and Google Play.
The so-called “Yarovaya law” came into effect in Russia in July 2018, named after its petitioner Irina Yarovaya. A new law requires telecoms and internet providers to keep, among other things, decrypted copies of all communications from the past six months. Even striving to the best of their efforts, service providers couldn’t hope to comply with this requirement, due to the volume of data that would need to be stored, and the impossibility to decrypt part of the communications to which the authorities require access. The gradual implementation of the laws’ requirements has been ongoing since 2018, with communications services providers expected to fulfill all requirements by 2023.
Reformulating the strategy
In 2019 the imposition of control over the Russian-speaking segment of the Internet and over the access to Internet resources on Russian territory has been raised to a target of a “national project” called “Digital economics”.
The years since 2011 have shown the trend and maturation both of the regime’s opposition as well as of the security apparatus. Beginning with mass persecution and arrests of opposition authors on the Internet, and with silencing of opposition voices through pressure exerted on Internet service providers, Russian security services gradually began thinking and acting on a larger scale. Today pressure from the Russian state is shifting in the direction of global platfrom owners – Facebook, Google, Twitter, as interests close to the regime are gradually taking control over the Internet service providers’ market in the country.
After the failure of attempts to directly influence the end users of platforms by means of the security and police services, through intimidation self-censorship, it proves to be a smarter strategy to negotiate with the platform owners themselves. They have a much better technical ability and control, allowing them to provide censorship when and as required by states, and with a lower reputational risk for the state ordering the censorship.
Regretfully, popular platform leaders are generally partial to requests for such sort of “cooperation”, for the sake of enjoying business as usual in the country in question. Some even go as far as to directly invite states to their aid and demonstrate willingness to apply political and ideological censorship over their user base – the same user base which happens to be the source of their astronomical revenues, kept safely away from taxation.
The persecution of platforms, combined with the application of existing methods of intimidation and encouraging a mentality of self-censorship directed at regular users, is one side of the Kremiln regime’s complex strategy for control over the Russian-speaking Internet. Its other side is revealed if we take a closer look at Russia’s national project “Digital economics”.
Towards a “sovereign Internet”
Funded by a budget of at least 20 billion rubles – more than twice the budget of Roskomnadzor itself – the sovereign Internet project envisages the implementation of technical and human resources, which are to give the ability to Russia’s secret services to monitor Internet traffic on Russian territory, and if given the order – isolate Russian-hosted servers and Internet users from the worldwide Internet. In such conditions, the collection of websites hosted on Russian Federation territory are to function as an enormous intranet, where the only available websites and resources to russians will be those hosted within Russia’s borders, and controlled by the FSB and Roskomnadzor, while servers hosted outside Russia will be out of reach except for authorised requests.
Thus Russia is attempting to apply the Chinese model on its own territory – close off the network within the national borders by establishing “national” DNS servers, which selectively alter the DNS-to-IP address mapping of global DNS servers, resulting in censorship by denial of access to unwanted resources.
The roughest possible description of a DNS server would be to liken it to a phonebook, though one functioning on a global scale. The server maintains a list of human-readable domain names (mostly names of internet websites) with corresponding IP addresses (a sequence of numbers), needed in order to locate a computer within a global network. By opening a website on the Internet, we access the DNS server, which seeks a match between the website name and an IP address we are looking to connect to.
As can be expected, the “sovereign Internet” aim is advocated for by the Russian state with security concerns over the national web space. “Sovereign Internet” advocates bring forth the potential threat that with worsening Russia-US relations, in the eventuality of a military conflict with the United States, Russia’s domains may be removed from the root DNS servers located in the US. Alternatively, though with the same effect, Russia’s IP range could be temporarily removed, so that domain names will have no corresponding addresses, or the international routing paths could be altered so that Russian internet could be isolated from the rest of the network.
Whatever method we imagine, through which Russia could be denied access to the Internet, such a scenario has a very low probability, for a variety of reasons. First, even if all Russian domain names are removed from US-hosted root DNS servers, there will be multiple copies of DNS records remaining on independent servers in other countries around the world, as well as within Russia itself. Such an attack against Russia’s internet would have been very ineffective and access would be restored within hours. Second, such an action would have caused chaos and brought damages throughout the world, not merely in Russia. The revocation of IP addresses and DNS names would have also been illegal and would have served as a basis for an enormous number of claims at an incalculable cost of the total damages. Third, in the event of an armed conflict between NATO and Russia, cutting off Russian citizens from the global Internet would have likely been detrimental to NATO’s interests, as the Internet in Russia is the only medium of communication which is not under complete state control.
It is precisely that which poses a problem for Russia’s leadership. The introduction of all legal, technical and personnel measures which would ensure the independent functioning of “Internet in One Country” as imagined by the Kremlin, can function not only as a “defense measure”, but can also be used by the regime so that in any chosen moment, Russian Internet users’ access to the outside internet could be cut off, leaving them within an enormous “Russian intranet”. This would come as a bonus to the ability to monitor and eavesdrop on internet traffic, and can be selectively applied to specific networks or to specific IP addresses. In theory, with a formal court permit, after a request by the FSB or Ministry of the Interior, any computer or smartphone’s access to the outside Internet could be denied.
The discrepancy between desires and opportunities
In its efforts to attain the ability to close off the Internet within Russian Federation territory, the Kremlin is borrowing the Chinese model of a heavily regulated Internet and Internet content. Yet this model cannot be replicated in Russia with the same degree of effectiveness. There are a number of important differences between China and Russia, which turn into insurmountable obstacles.
Firstly, Russia has a more significant and a more politically active diaspora in Europe and the United States than China does. The cultural, linguistic and geographic proximity to the democracies in Europe and America will always be greater for russians than for the Chinese, and the Internet isolation will not reach the same levels. There is also to consider the fact that China’s network was engineered with control in mind from its establishment, whereas in Russia control measures need to be imposed long after the infrastructure has been created. But Russia’s bigger problem lies in its inability to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Thus we arrive at the second big difference. China is an economic powerhouse, including in the IT industry, while Russia’s exports of natural resources account for 60% of the country’s GDP. China can afford to close itself off for the biggest social networks and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps, because this is being offset by similar platforms, developed by local software giants (Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu), and adapted to Chinese and Asian users.
Thirdly, China’s population is roughly 10 times that of Russia (1.4 billion vs 144 million), with more than 700 million active internet users – almost one quarter of the global “Internet population”. Not only does China possess huge production capacity in all sectors of the economy, it also has consumers to whom this production is oriented.
These factors allow China, even closed off to the outside Internet, to have a dynamic internet-based commerce, where goods produced in China are being sold over internet platforms made in China, to Chinese consumers. Creating such a closed model is simply unachievable for Russia.
These realities raise enormously the social and reputational price of closing Russia off in the confines of a “national Internet”. The cutting of access to services like Amazon, Google Maps, iTunes, Netflix will heavily affect Russian users due to the absence of local substitutes.
The simple conclusion is that before declaring itself to be a self-sufficient Internet power, a country needs to have done its homework in the real, offline, economy. And no steps can be skipped in this gradation. At the end of the day, in trying to apply China’s model for a closed Internet, Russia will replicate with some success only the mode’s repressive side, without being able to copy anything from its attractive side and without being able to offer substitutes to those services of which users will be forcefully deprived in the name of combatting imaginary threats.
The Russian sovereign internet’s technical feasibility is up for discussion, its political and financial cost – high, and its effectiveness doubtful. Nevertheless, the Kremlin regime will continue its attempts to increase control over communications in Russia, as a part of its overall efforts to contain public discontent caused by the country’s difficult economic and social situation.