Since the invasion of Ukraine began, the rumor has been that Russia could decide to disconnect from the global internet. This Monday, some emails signed by the Deputy Minister of Digital Development, Andréi Chernenko, were leaked, in which he urged government agencies to take various measures to relocate all their networks in national territory before Friday. Faced with the uproar caused by the news, the Kremlin denied that it planned to isolate Russian cyberspace from the rest of the world. He did not deny, on the other hand, that he is going to do it with the government websites.
Moscow has the technical capacity to loosen ties with global cyberspace. The sovereign internet project, known as RuNet, was legally enabled in 2019 and that’s it has been tested successfully. RuNet would allow the internet to continue to function in the country, while redirecting all data traffic to national servers controlled by state authorities. In other words, the Kremlin would decide what can be seen and what cannot. For all practical purposes, Russians would not be able to access pages from outside the country.
What could motivate Moscow to totally disconnect from the rest of the world? “RuNet has not been launched because it would be a problem for all companies that do business outside the country. The objective of the project was in fact to be able to have an alternative path when Russia feels threatened at the cyber. If they suddenly received many powerful cyberattacks while affecting critical infrastructure and government sites, it would make sense to hit the red button, ”says Andrea G. Rodríguez, senior researcher in emerging technologies at the European Policy Center think tank in Brussels. The partial activation of RuNet, limited until now to the official websites, would have that reading.
The effect that a complete closure could have on the citizenry cannot be underestimated. “Moscow must have a strategic vision to think about whether RuNet can make people upset and further increase the pressure of public opinion and protests,” says Raquel Jorge, technology policy analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute.
Controlling cyberspace is not an exclusively Russian obsession. China has been working on its own project for more than 20 years, although in this case the model is different: it is an exercise in massive censorship rather than independence from global information nodes. “What Beijing does is not disconnect from the web, but place a large number of filters so that there are many people behind it to see what can and cannot happen. Today, as far as is known, China does not have the technical capacity that Russia has to disconnect from the world”, explains Rodríguez.
Iran, for its part, is preparing a law that will isolate the country’s internet relative to the rest of the world. At the end of February it was debated in parliament, where it received criticism from some deputies, and it is expected to be approved during this month. The Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Tehran to reconsider his stance.
red internet button
The term RuNet was popularized in the 1990s by one of the first Russian bloggers in history, Raffi Aslanbekov. At the moment, only some social networks and independent media remain blocked. Yesterday all Meta social networks were included (Facebook was already closed; Instagram and WhatsApp were not) in this package. The Kremlin has had the panic button for a long time. “The disconnection has been possible for three or four years, but it is another thing to apply it,” says Stanislav Shárikov, director of Technology at the NGO Roskomsvoboda (acronym for Freedom of Russian Telecommunications). In the current situation, “without major riots or mass protests, disconnection from the internet probably doesn’t make sense; although the option is on the table if the protests gain strength and the internet helps spread them, ”he adds.
The “Russian island” is official since May 1, 2019, when President Vladimir Putin signed the law that put the internet under state control in Russia. The reform sparked an intense debate, but passed the cut in the State Duma with 334 votes in favor and 47 against. One of the authors of the regulation was the deputy Andréi Lugovói, who justified the initiative with statements by Edward Snowden, the former CIA and NSA employee who received asylum in Russia after his massive leaks to WikiLeaks.
The initiative forces internet service providers to install government software that allows authorities to thoroughly inspect the data packets supplied to the user (DPI) without the authorization of the telcos. This is what has made it possible to block banned websites in Russia, from Linkedin and Facebook to independent media such as Dozhd and jellyfish, or even slow down the traffic of some services as punishment for serving as a platform for “undesirable organizations”. For example, Twitter, which has been slowed down since January 2021 for its role in the protests sparked by the arrest of activist Alexei Navalni.
The idea of a closed internet in Russia arose in 2014, when the founder of the Telegram chat, Pavel Durov, left his previous company after clashing with the government. That year the Ministry of Telecommunications already tried to disconnect from the Internet without success, and for more than five years tried to block the Russian alternative to WhatsApp without ever succeeding. Only the economic problems of Durov’s company led him to close an agreement in 2020 with the Russian authorities to be able to operate quietly in the country in exchange for allowing access to the Federal Security Service (FSB) in its investigations. Telegram has been all these years one of the main channels of information in the face of the repression of the press and the demonstrations in Russia and Belarus.
How to circumvent the disconnection
Both the Society for the Protection of the Internet and Roskomsvoboda have presented citizens with “legal alternatives to unblock blocked websites”. One is to install VPN applications and extensions on mobile or computer browsers, virtual private networks located in other countries that forward encrypted web content. However, many of these have been eliminated or fined by the authorities themselves thanks to another 2018 law that punishes these services for allowing access to prohibited portals. That same year, the Government promoted another law that forced “information dissemination services” to have their servers in Russia in case the police had to access their messages. Among other firms Facebook and Tinder,
Another legal recommendation of the NGOs is to install a series of applications that mask the identification of the user (IP) and encrypt the information in the data exchanges. Russian authorities banned one of these services, Tor, in February last year.
“Wasn’t a VPN the panacea? Unfortunately, no,” says Klimarev’s organization. “Without going into technical details, a classic VPN is very easy to identify and block, but there are other tools that have proven effective in China, Iran, Belarus and other countries,” says the NGO.
The big question is whether the internet would make its way after a blackout. “If they isolate the internet, it will not work well, although some services such as banking, transfers, payments will continue to be active… These types of companies have doubled their infrastructure in Russia,” says Sharikov, from Roskomsvoboda. “There will probably be connection with other countries. If they suddenly shut down the internet, I think not everyone will be able to connect to the outside world, but people with some technical knowledge will.”