The internet in Russia is already a very different place than it was before the invasion of Ukraine just two weeks ago. There’s limited access to major social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Movie fans can no longer stream Netflix. Creators can no longer upload videos to TikTok. Freelancers can no longer find work on Upwork. And citizens can only see what the Kremlin wants them to see about the war in Ukraine.
But new documents published by the Kremlin this week suggest that the Russian government is preparing for things to get much worse. The documents reveal that the Kremlin is seeking to eradicate reliance on any Western internet services, potentially isolating itself from the rest of the global internet, a move that would send Russia back to the digital dark ages, further crippling its economy and ending the promise that a free and open internet could act as a check on authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin.
On Monday reports circulated on social media that the Kremlin was going to disconnect from the global internet by Friday, March 11, based on two documents published by the Ministry of Digital Development.
The reports were inaccurate, based on misinterpretations of the documents, which were real.
These documents outlined a series of measures the Kremlin wants state-owned websites and online portals to implement by the end of this week in order to “coordinate actions to defend telecommunication services on the internet.”
Essentially, the Kremlin was taking steps to allow its government websites to continue to work in the event of further cyberattacks, which have bombarded Russian online portals since the beginning of the Ukraine invasion.
Effectively the Kremlin is seeking to remove any reliance on Western technology that could be removed without warning and bring down Russian government websites.
“There are continuous cyberattacks on Russian sites from abroad. We are preparing for different scenarios. There are no plans to disconnect the internet from inside,” Andrey Chernenko, the ministry’s deputy director, told Russian news agency Interfax.
Experts say that this explanation makes sense.
“It’s mostly a list of commonsense measures to ensure the protection of government websites from all kinds of attacks,” Oleg Shakirov, an international security expert based in Moscow, told VICE News. “It’s about collecting data about the infrastructure of government websites and making sure they are protected and accessible.”
But the documents also direct websites to begin using Domain Name System (DNS) servers located in Russia. The global DNS acts as the telephone book for the internet, allowing users to translate URLs like “vice.com” into the IP addresses that computers use to communicate.
And that’s something Shakirov cannot explain. “The only point that raises questions is about ‘DNS servers located in Russia.’ I don’t know what they mean by this. There was a measure in the 2019 sovereign internet law on the national DNS, but I can’t tell if this exists and if the measures in the memos are about that.”
The 2019 sovereign Internet law was a controversial bill that gave the Kremlin much more control over the internet in Russia, including the ability to easily surveil and track online activity as well as filter information, like China does with its Great Firewall.
Part of that plan was building an independent Russian DNS, entirely separate from the global system. It was scheduled to be in place by the end of 2021, but despite the Kremlin running several tests of this new sovereign internet, the infrastructure is still not fully in place, Alena Epifanova, a Russian cyber-policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Fortune.
The digital ministry’s documents clearly show that the Kremlin is keen to move its infrastructure onto Russian-only servers and services as soon as possible, and while the measures are certainly going to protect the sites from cyberattack, they will also help if the Russian government decides to disconnect from the internet.
But that decision may be taken out of the Kremlin’s hands entirely.
Last week Ukraine wrote a letter to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the U.S.-based nonprofit organization that manages the distribution of internet domain names, seeking Russia’s suspension from the internet’s domain registry system.
ICANN ultimately denied the request after many activists pointed out what a terrible idea it would be to effectively cut the cord on Russia’s access to the global internet, given that it would hurt ordinary citizens more than it would the Kremlin.
But days later, the effort to disconnect Russia from the rest of the internet began anyway, when Cogent Communications, an internet backbone company that owns the infrastructure that routes data across continents, announced it was terminating all contracts with its Russian customers, which include high-profile accounts like the state-backed telecom giant Rostelecom and Russian search engine Yandex.
Cogent’s decision won’t cut off Russian customers entirely, but it will slow internet traffic in Russia and congest the connections that other internet backbone companies provide to the country. And if other backbone companies decide to join forces, it could have a crippling effect on Russians’ ability to access the internet.
And so, viewed through this lens, the announcement by the digital ministry on Monday can be seen as preparatory steps for when, rather than if, the country is cut off digitally by the outside world.
“The steps outlined in the reports are realistic milestones that would keep a baseline of network service available in the case of a disconnect from the global internet,” Alp Toker, director of the digital advocacy group Netblocks, which tracks internet outages around the world, told VICE News.
“Taken to its ultimate conclusion, Russia’s internet would become fully isolated, with any international links subject to deep surveillance,” Toker said. “This may not happen overnight, but it can happen in a short timeframe, as Russia has already done much of the groundwork. The calculation may be that the worst economic impacts have already been exacted, but in reality, the move would present a cultural shift unlike any witnessed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
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