Russia plans to set up a sovereign internet system amid claims it faces a cyber-security threat. Image: iStock

“Today a lot depends on the internet economically, socially and politically, and its development cannot be left unattended. Otherwise, we may lose sovereignty.” Those comments by Russian Deputy Communication Minister Oleg Ivanov were given as background to a new bill which, if implemented, would permit the Kremlin to unplug Russia from the world-wide-web.

It would be a massive step. Backers of the legislation justify it as a necessary measure to shield the Russian internet, or Runet, if a cyber war with the West breaks out. However, critics, fear that the initiative is being used by the government to intensify its control over cyberspace.

The bill “on the sovereign internet,” introduced in the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament in December last year and passed by 334 votes to 47, aims at creating an autonomous National Domain System. That would allow Runet to continue working even if cut off from overseas infrastructure.

But it would also require Russian internet providers to install special equipment able to route traffic through centralized exchange points under control of the state watchdog Roskomnadzor. That, in turn, would permit authorities to filter all illegal content and make sure traffic stays inside Russia, without being retransmitted to servers abroad, where it could be intercepted.

“The whole country will be in full view,” explained the bill’s co-author Andrei Lugovoi. “We will understand from where the internet is flowing and where it goes.”

The measure was presented as a reaction to an aggressive new US cyber-security strategy implemented last year, which mentions Russia as one of the main sources of cyber threats. The bill’s authors said in explanation: “Protective measures are necessary to ensure the long-term and stable operation of the internet in Russia, and to increase the reliability of Russian internet resources.”

Far-fetched scenario

The first draft was met with a high degree of criticism from both industry representatives and state deputies. It was deemed to be vague in outlining its goals and the threats it is supposed to counter. According to most experts, the hypothesis of Russia being cut off from the global internet is a far-fetched scenario that would require a highly unlikely process of complex cooperation between all countries where infrastructure is located.

This indicates that the supposed cyber-security threats are being used as justification to curtail internet freedom.

“The equipment that internet providers will be required to install must fulfill two functions – route traffic, and filter content from forbidden websites – to enforce censorship,” Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and author of “The Red Web: The Kremlin Wars on the Internet,” told Asia Times.

According to Soldatov, the main point of a Russian sovereign internet is to grant the Kremlin the power to shut down the network in case of political unrest.

The internet has been at least partly perceived as a potential threat by Russian authorities since 2012, when social media played a major role in catalyzing mass protests in central Moscow against Putin’s reelection.

‘CIA project’

In 2014, after Russia entered a new era of confrontation with the West over the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin intensified its efforts to control the local internet, which Putin went as far as defining as “a CIA project.”

Since then, laws have been implemented that require search engines to delete certain search results, for social networks to store user’s data in servers within the country, and for messenger services to disclose users’ encryption keys.

Not all these regulatory attempts have been effective. For instance, popular messenger service Telegram is still accessible in Russia, despite authorities’ multiple attempts to block it after it refused to disclose its encryption keys to the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

And even from a technical point of view, the bill on the sovereign internet needs improvements.

Natalya Kaspersky, head of the cybersecurity working group responsible for improving the draft, said that while the law had “good goals,” its technical implementation “raises many questions.” In fact, according to the group, implementation of the bill risks causing major disruptions to Runet, which would cost internet operators around 134 billion rubles per annum.

Moreover, requesting operators to provide Roskomnadzor with a complete scheme of their traffic routing has been deemed as impossible as the web “is a lively multi-tier system, constantly expanding and being updated.”

Inspired by China?

The Russian sovereign internet bill looks to have been inspired by China’s online censorship system, the “Great Firewall.” However, replicating such a model in Russia may not be feasible.

Unlike China, Russians still rely on popular Western internet services such as search engines, social media sites and payment systems. Moreover, while Chinese people never got the chance to become familiar with and use a truly free internet, in Russia the internet has long been free of censorship. New – and radical – restrictions are likely to spark popular discontent.

Nevertheless, Putin has urged officials “not to spare money” on the development of a sovereign internet, adding that, while Russia does not intend to cut itself off from the global net, “everything is possible.” For now, 1.8 billion rubles have been allocated to develop the sovereign internet, but total expenses are still to be defined.

A test is set to be conducted in which Russia will temporarily disconnect itself from the global web. The results of that test will guide lawmakers in introducing necessary changes in the bill before it is submitted to two more readings in the State Duma, and then finally going before the president for final approval.

According to most analysts, there is little doubt that the bill will become law. What is unclear, at this point, is what its final form will be.

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