On November 1, the controversial law of the “sovereign internet” of Russia entered into force.
Those who support it argue that this action is necessary to protect Russia from cyber attacks that come from abroad, while human rights defenders and freedom of speech argue that the law represents a new serious threat to freedom of online expression. For the moment,
ordinary users of the Russian network will not feel much difference. At least, not until a “crisis” (defined imprecisely) is declared – in these circumstances, the sovereign internet would activate and isolate the internet in certain regions of Russia, or the entire country, from the world wide web.
The “sovereign internet” law of Russia was drafted by Senators Andrey Klishas, Lyudmila Bokova and Andrey Lugovoi, and passed by the Duma, the Parliament of Russia, in April. President Vladimir Putin promulgated it on May 1. It is one of the recent strategies promoted by the Kremlin to restrict cyberspace; Only this year there were two interruptions of the internet service instigated apparently for political reasons, in Moscow and Ingushetia. In addition, laws prohibiting “false news” and “obvious disrespect to the authorities” online entered into force in March 2019. Putin recently suggested adding to these laws a proposed law that criminalizes “drug propaganda. ” online.
As with most Russian legislation of this nature (such as laws against the promotion of Russian “extremism” online), its application has been unpredictable and inconsistent – RuNet users often ignore where the red line is located and they notice after having crossed it.
While there are different laws to control online content, the sovereign internet plays a different role, if related. Specifically, it deals with the “crucial infrastructure” of RuNet, rather than just its content. For example, the new law requires internet service providers to direct the flow of incoming international traffic through internet exchange points (IXP) located in Russia to ensure the centralized operation of the internet in a crisis. It also forces them to install special devices that would help Roskomnadzor, a state entity that monitors telecommunications, to block undesirable internet traffic. These would send data to a central tracking facility that would examine real-time traffic using DPI (deep packet inspection), a method considered more effective than blocking IP addresses. The law also requires the creation of a national version of the domain name system (DNS), or the internet phone book, in case of an interruption of the internet service, Russian providers could not connect to external DNS servers. On September 27, Roskomnadzor announced that he would test the systems in the southern region of Ural, to the discontent of the local population. The results were not published.
But what is the political logic behind Russia's “sovereign internet”?
Putin has long regarded Russia's dependence on foreign digital technology as a security threat and declared, at least twice, that the internet was a project created and managed by Western security services. In the words of Kiril Rogov, who wrote on October 29 for the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, social media today “mobilize and shape political loyalty in Russia to the same extent as television did when Vladimir Putin rose to power.” From that perspective, recent actions to restrict online freedoms share some strange similarities with the state's approach to dealing with critical media in the last decade. In one case, they are reflected almost exactly: at the end of July, they proposed a bill to prevent foreign owners from owning more than 20% stake in any “important” Russian digital company (in 2014, they passed a similar law referred to print media, radio and television). Lawmaker Lev Gorelkin, of the ruling United Russia party, suggested this action apparently acting on the orders of the presidential administration. When the media found out, the share price of Russian tech giant Yandex plummeted.
In an interview with Global Voices (GV), Andrey Soldatov, expert in digital management in Russia and co-author of the book The Red Web, history of the Russian internet, explained the motivation of the authorities as follows:
The Kremlin’s offensive on the Internet freedoms started in 2012 and over this period they learned a few things. They understand now that the most dangerous content is not generated by some hostile forces from abroad, but inside the country, and this content is not always produced by the opposition or political activists – it might be the news of some incident, like environmental catastrophe or natural disaster, disseminated and shared by ordinary users. And the Sovereign Internet bill is designed to prevent precisely this kind of content from spreading – it requires the installation of the system which would enable the government to control remotely the way the traffic goes in the country, cutting of a particular region from the rest of the country, if necessary.
The Kremlin offensive to restrict freedoms on the Internet began in 2012 and during this period they learned some things. Now, they understand that the most dangerous content is not the one that generates any hostile force coming from outside, but within the country, and this content is not always created by the opposition or political activists – it could be information of some event, such as a catastrophe environmental or natural disaster, disseminated and published by common users. And the sovereign internet law is designed to precisely prevent the dissemination of this type of content – it requires the installation of a system that would allow the Government to remotely control how traffic flows in the country, or isolate a particular region from the rest of the country, If necessary.
While it is easy to portray the sovereign internet as a creation of a mature elite that has disconnected from today's digital realities, such a position can be dangerously misleading. Actions to divide the internet into national digital feuds that can be more strictly controlled are part of a generalized global trend, not something that only autocratic governments have undertaken. Soldatov added that the Russian Government frequently points out similar actions in other places to strengthen the legitimacy of its own policies with respect to the internet:
Russian lawmakers love referring to the Western experience in Internet legislation – after all, we got Internet censorship in the country under the pretext of following the British example, as we were told by the Duma. Of course, the concept of the Sovereign Internet is not exclusively Russian — apart from China, there were many European countries that started talking about the need of something sovereign, especially after Snowden’s revelations. But these days, the problem is not what the government could do about the cables and the ways the traffic goes – it’s the content and where it’s stored. In many countries there are debates over how to make global platforms store the data of users in their respective countries: German users of Facebook in Germany, French in France and so on. This could be really dangerous, especially given the fact that to store data closer to users has a practical sense to the platforms as well.
Russian lawmakers are fascinated to refer to the Western experience in terms of internet legislation – after all, internet censorship was implemented in the country under the pretext of following the British example, the Duma told us. Of course, the concept of sovereign internet is not exclusively Russian – apart from China, there were many European nations that started talking about the need for something sovereign, particularly after Snowden's revelations. But these days, the problem is not what the government could do about cables and the ways in which traffic flows – it is the content and where it is stored. In many countries, discuss how to get global platforms to store user information in their respective countries: German Facebook users in Germany, the French in France, and so on. This could be really dangerous, especially considering that storing information closer to users also makes practical sense for platforms.
However, Soldatov stressed that the temptation to draw parallels between Russia's “sovereign internet” and China's “great firewall” is misleading:
The Chinese model of surveillance and censorship was integrated into the Chinese Internet from the beginning, while the Russian Internet was left alone for a very long period of time: from the very beginning in the early 1990s to 2012. It makes things more difficult for the Russian censors, and the most striking difference between the two countries is that blocking isn't effective in Russia – we have lots of websites banned and blocked, but one could use VPNs and other means to circumvent it pretty easily. The government war with Telegram messenger was also not successful – lots of people still use this messenger, including government officials.
The Chinese surveillance and censorship model was integrated into the Chinese internet from the beginning, while the Russian internet was left unattended for a long time: from the early 1990s until 2012. This makes it harder for Russian censors to work , and the most surprising difference between the two countries is that in Russia blocking is not an effective measure – there are many banned and blocked websites, but a virtual private network or other means could be used to easily evade it. The war that the government waged against the Telegram messaging application was also a failure – many still use it, including officials.
Therefore, the highly integrated position of the Russian network within global networks could complicate the introduction of the sovereign internet. However, Soldatov said that since 90% of Russian internet traffic is distributed through national internet exchange points, the isolation of the Russian network could be easier from a technical point of view than it had been. provided:
As I said, the main idea of the Sovereign Internet is to use it during the crisis, not every day of the week. This means that if the Kremlin will be smart, they could almost avoid financial losses – the costs of introduction of such a system is a different matter.
As I said earlier, the main idea of sovereign internet is to use it during a crisis, not every day of the week. This means that if the Kremlin were intelligent, they could almost avoid financial losses – the costs of introducing such a system is a different matter.
But introducing that system could take too much time and, according to some estimates, several tens of billions of rubles. Certainly, the law stipulates that more than 30 laws need to be passed to ensure that full compliance with its multiple provisions can be achieved by 2021. On October 19, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov even admitted in an interview that the country is not technologically prepared for total isolation, this means that the provisions of the law would have to be gradually implemented to ensure that the “sovereign internet” could function without difficulty. Or, we could add, to avoid the bureaucratic fate and plagued by scandals that have taken the other initiatives that regulate Russian cyberspace, such as the so-called Yarovaya telecommunications laws or frustrated attempts by the state to ban Telegram.
However, Russian network users are good to be one step ahead of the situation. Some websites have already prepared tips on what to do in case they isolate the network; although experts are concerned that the activation of the “power switch” would isolate Russian users of tools, such as private virtual networks, which they currently use to evade government blockades. In social media networks, this measure is subject to mockery or complaints. Lev Perulkov, a member of the popular MXD art collective, published a series of works dedicated to the “sovereign internet” on VKontakte, which quickly went viral. Critical users called it “Cheburnet” (# Чебурнет), word composed of “internet” and Cheburashka, a popular cartoon character in the Soviet era.
В России с сегодняшнего дня заработал суверенный духовный и скрепный интернет, построенный по принципу Пятиединства Войновича – Народности, Партийности, Религиозности, Бдительности и Госбезопасности.
Все россиянам просьба привести внешний вид ЭВМ к новому ГОСТу: pic.twitter.com/8yXs0Zc522
– ⭐Максим Мирович (@maxim_nm) November 1, 2019
In Russia, from now on, starts a sovereign, spiritual and secure internet that was developed in accordance with the principles of (the dystopian novels of the late and famous Soviet writer) Voinovich: nationality, party affiliation, religiosity, vigilance and state security
All Russians are requested to modify the appearance of their computers to meet the new government standards.
The sovereign internet, then, is designed to create a parallel digital infrastructure that can be activated at the push of a switch. But even if that never happens, the multiple demands demanded by the law from internet service providers could help the state to more effectively apply its increasing number of laws regulating cyberspace. And in that sense, it is a sign of the time.
“The law is an imposing weapon,” said Alexander Zharov, director of Roskomnadzor, during an interview in April. But he hoped that “like the nuclear weapons that several countries possess, it will remain in an inactive state.”