Russia is developing the capability to cut its internet from the world wide web. Liam Glen writes on the mechanisms and consequences of this unprecedented move, which will increase government control over what citizens see online.
The last decade has done much to sully public optimism in the internet. What was once viewed as a source of endless creativity and progress is now seen as a chaotic force with grave potential for misuse. Now, even its greatest selling point – its disregard for political boundaries or government authority – is under threat.
The Russian government has announced that it has tested a so-called sovereign internet unconnected to the rest of the world. The details of this test are still unknown, but it is a step forward in implementing a law signed earlier this year to give the country the ability to disconnect from the global internet.
Ostensibly, this is a security measure that would only take effect if a cyberattack disrupted Russia’s connection to the rest of the world. Indeed, it is unlikely that the government will completely disconnect the country from the internet. If nothing else, the economy still relies on online financial transactions from abroad.
The latest move, however, is poised to give the Kremlin unprecedented power over the online sphere. In a world where regimes struggle to influence the hearts and minds of the citizenry, the success or failure of this scheme could have massive consequences.
What Is a Sovereign Internet?
The internet relies on a decentralized system of physical infrastructure – including satellites, subterranean cables, and datacenters – which transcends national boundaries. To be able to unplug from this system, Russia needs to build enough of that infrastructure within the country that it can function without external connections.
While theoretically doable, this is no easy task. The current system is not designed to be isolated by country. Along with complex interconnections, it is full of redundancies. No single pathway of online traffic may be particularly reliable, but because so many routes are available, web users can usually reach their destination.
An unplugged Russian internet would require massive infrastructure investments if it is to be usable. One estimate puts the cost at $304 million, but even that is only expected to cover a fraction.
This sovereign internet comes with a fair share of trouble, but it has number of side effects that would be beneficial for the Russian government. Notably, internet exchange providers are now obligated to share information with Roskomnadzor, the country’s censorship agency. This will culminate in the installation of deep packet inspection (DPI), which would give Roskomnadzor the power to monitor and manipulate traffic throughout the country, making it easier to block certain sites.
In addition, the government will develop an alternative domain name system (DNS). This will ensure that traffic from Russia does not go outside the country, and by controlling the DNS, the government will be able to more easily censor websites.
The end result is a Russian internet that is more easily surveilled by the government, and which connects to the rest of the world only at a select few chokepoints that can be closely monitored and, in extreme circumstances, shut down.
What Other Countries Are Doing It?
Nationwide intranets that exist solely within a country’s boundaries are rare, but not unheard of. North Korea’s “Kwangmyong” is one example, but as one would expect, it is extremely small and has few users. Cuba also has its own system, but it too is limited, mainly being used to send emails within the country.
A more sophisticated example is the People’s Republic of China’s Golden Shield Project, better known as the Great Firewall of China. The country’s internet does connect with the rest of the world, but only at a few closely-controlled points, so the government can employ a number of tricks to block users from accessing undesirable content.
Opponents of the Kremlin’s sovereign internet initiative fear that a similar system could emerge in Russia, but others are skeptical. China’s internet infrastructure was developed from the start to fall under strict state control, while Russia’s has evolved for decades in a decentralized free market system.
However, that does not mean that it is impossible. Iran is similarly endeavoring to centralize its internet into a closely-regulated “National Information Network.” The success of this effort was demonstrated when it was able to order internet service providers to shut off internet access to the entire country in response to mass protests.
Shutting down a country’s internet is a crude but increasingly common method. Various others – including Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan – have done it in response to internal turmoil. In the 2018, the Russian government ordered a shutdown of mobile service in the Ingushetia region during protests.
Internet blackouts, however, are a suboptimal solution. For one, the most common trick of simply ordering companies to stop providing access becomes increasingly difficult in more developed countries with a large number of internet service providers and points connecting it with the outside world.
Moreover, shutting down online access is bad for the economy. Businesses increasingly need the internet to operate, so a blackout to quell protesters has unintended financial consequences which could further threaten the regime.
The Politics of the Internet
Authoritarian governments have good reason to see the internet as a threat. Independent websites like Wikipedia can spread information that goes against the official line, but more worryingly, social media is a tool that lets anyone – be they terrorists, foreign agents, or opposition activists – spread their message to the rest of the world.
In various modern revolutions, most notably the Arab Spring, social media has helped activists organize and spread uncensored news about what is happening in the country. Governments’ tools of censorship were limited, and shutting down the internet could easily backfire, so it seemed like they had no recourse.
For decades, it was thought that agents of economic development and technological progress like the internet were doubled-edged swords for dictatorships. While they provided short-term increases in revenue, they inevitably made it easier for average citizens to connect, share information critical of the regime, and eventually organize mass movements against the government.
But that consensus has now fallen under question. Many authoritarian governments – most notably that of China – have managed to develop their economies without liberalizing their societies. This has primarily been possible due to sophisticated censorship regimes to counteract anti-government action.
One of the greatest questions in modern politics is whether these attempts to reap the benefits of economic growth while avoiding the political risks are a sustainable strategy, or whether regimes like that of China and Russia are anomalies which will inevitably fall.
The Kremlin’s proposed sovereign internet promises to be a massively useful instrument to control its populace. Dissident content will be more easily monitored and blocked, and in extreme cases, regionalized internet shutdowns can cut off a rebellious populace’s means of communication.
In any case, however, it is still a work in progress, and its technological feasibility is still an open question. If it turns out to be a failure, it would be a massive embarrassment for the government and anyone else who wishes to put limits on the internet. But if it succeeds, it may serve as a model for opressive regimes throughout the world.