On Monday, the Russian government announced testing of the internal RuNet network would begin after November 1st. The announcement is the latest development in “a larger initiative to establish a ‘sovereign’ internet.” Legislation pursuing a sovereign internet was adopted by the Duma in April, and the legislation was signed into law by Putin in the spring. November’s testing coincides with the beginning of the roll out of the rules and regulations associated with the law.
Ostensibly, Russia’s push for cyber sovereignty is a move to reduce its vulnerability to cyber threats. Proponents of the law claim the National Cyber Strategy the White House announced in 2018 threatens Russian internet access. They argue “threats to the stability, security and integrity of functioning of the internet and the public communications network” require Russia to insulate itself from the world wide web. While the cyberattack on 2,000 Georgian websites Monday, including government pages and television channels, shows attacks on countries do occur, experts say it’s unlikely the U.S. would take Russia completely offline as some fear.
The Kremlin, however, is motivated by more than just fears of being knocked offline. In some ways, the internet itself is perceived as a threat. Putin has described the internet as a “CIA project,” which Russia requires protection from and whose influence must be resisted. After witnessing the role of social media in the Arab Spring, the Kremlin realized the prominent role the internet can play in inspiring and organizing domestic unrest and sought to control the internet’s dissemination of information within Russia’s borders. The Kremlin is not only sensitive to its political vulnerability, but also to structural vulnerability exposed through its reliance on Western technology. Aware of these vulnerabilities, the Kremlin is now seeking to exercise more control over the internet.
The “sovereign internet” law is only Russia’s latest attempt to decrease dependency on foreign technology while increasing its ability to control its citizens use of the internet. In recent years, the Kremlin has been pursuing a system that would keep 95% of Russian internet traffic within its borders. Since 2012, the government has adopted laws that enable it to blacklist websites, compel websites to store the personal data of Russian citizens on Russian servers, require communications be stored for six months, and ban VPNs and the popular app Telegram.
Putin’s push to control the internet ecosystem is a recent development. During his first two terms, he consolidated state control on traditional media like TV and print media. The Kremlin moved to systemically dismantle independent media within Russia. This effort was a success. For instance, all three of the major Russian television channels are controlled directly or indirectly by the state. However, the Kremlin’s efforts are being undermined by a shifting media landscape. While most Russians (95.4%) still rely on television for news, a majority of Russians (56.4%) also get their news online. In order to get their news, Russian “youth use alternative sources of information, first and foremost the Internet.” As media preferences shift, the Kremlin has moved to continue its tight control on the information environment.
The “sovereign internet” law represents the Kremlin’s most ambitious attempt to bring the internet under its control. The law would extend the government’s control over Russia’s internet infrastructure and would allow Russia to disconnect from the global internet. Although the law is only supposed to allow Russia to isolate itself from the internet in response to three categories of threats, many fear this is only a pretext laying the groundwork for further cyber censorship. As Princeton University’s Sergey Sanovich points out, “to be able to manage the information flow in their favor, [authorities] have to have a system in place beforehand.” Many describe the law as the first step in establishing a digital Iron Curtain, where the alternative system creates “an alternative reality for the majority of Russian internet users.”
The Kremlin’s ability to actualize these plans remains unclear. Although authorities have managed to pass laws advancing their internet agenda, issues have emerged in enforcing compliance. The new legislation has been largely unsuccessful in achieving its objectives since providers aren’t saving all users traffic data, companies have not enabled the FSB to unencrypt all data, and Western companies have defied the law. Isolating Russia from the global internet is also both expensive and difficult, and many experts doubt it is possible. The equipment required is estimated to cost nearly $320 million. Russia would also have to create its own Domain Name System (DNS) to control how traffic is routed.