Russia wants to unplug itself from the internet. Here’s how that works
Russia is expected to pass a bill that would mandate a way to cut off the worldwide web. (Unplash: Rawpixel)
Sometimes you might feel like unplugging from social media for a little while. Russia wants to take that sentiment a step further and try disconnecting the entire country from the internet.
- Russia wants to be able to operate its own sovereign internet and shut off outside traffic in times of cyber war
- A bill that seeks to set up that infrastructure is expected to become law
- Russian telcos are unsure how to practically implement the draft bill and will hold “exercises” on disconnecting the nation in the next few months
It’s not going to be a digital detox though, it’s all about testing a proposed cyber defence law that calls for Russian telecommunication companies to create a so-called sovereign internet.
A working group of industry leaders that was established to figure out how to implement the legislation has called for telcos to hold “exercises” to test out the disconnection, Russian media website RBC has reported.
They would need to be done before April 1, the group said, so there’s time to suggest amendments to the bill before it becomes law.
Why would Russia want to go dark?
The legislation, which passed its first of three readings in Russia’s Parliament on Tuesday, calls for the Government to have the ability to isolate RuNet (Russia’s internet infrastructure) from the rest of the world if a crippling cyber attack hits the nation.
This would mean if another nation tried to attack the country’s online infrastructure, Russia could flip a switch and cut itself off from the rest of the worldwide web, while still having a functioning internet and online services, like banking or social media, inside the country.
To do this, Russian telcos need to be able to route all web traffic through points inside the country controlled by state authorities, rather than through servers hosted overseas.
The communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, will be responsible for sealing off the internet. (Reuters: Maxim Shemetov)
The country would also need to build its own national Domain Name System (DNS) — a crucial piece of the internet that translates website URLs into the corresponding IP addresses of the servers they are hosted on.
The draft legislation tells the telcos to reroute their traffic, but the telcos are scratching their heads about how to actually get it done.
Some Russian media have likened the legislation to an online “iron curtain”, and human rights groups have warned the proposed bill could seriously threaten internet freedom in the country.
Cutting off the internet sounds complicated
Yeah. It is.
The working group headed by Natalya Kaspersky, which met late last month, said the draft law had “good goals”, but its implementation “raises many questions”.
One of the main points of contention is that, when activated, the legislation calls for all network traffic in Russia to only pass through exchange points that have been entered into a special register.
That register is to be controlled by the federal communications regulator, known as the Roskomnadzor.
Telcos will have to update the Roskomnadzor on the layouts of their networks and traffic routing whenever changes are made.
But RBC reported that this is seen by Russian experts as “impossible” due to the constantly changing and expanding nature of networks.
The working group said this interaction between the telcos and the communications regulator still needed to be solved, RBC reported, quoting from minutes of the group’s meeting.
Is it actually possible?
A top internet adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly thinks so.
The adviser, German Klimenko, told the state-controlled NTV channel that Russia was ready to disconnect in case of aggression from the West. Russia’s telcos obviously beg to differ.
“Yes you can just push a button and turn a country into an outcast,” Mr Klimenko told NTV.
“[But] technically we are ready for any action.
“Even if they declare such a war on us, there is no evidence we wouldn’t be able to live well and normally.”
But the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs has said the bill poses more of a risk to the functioning of the Russian internet segment than the alleged threats from foreign countries that the bill seeks to counter.
Does Russia have an internet censorship problem?
Vladimir Putin has tried to stifle internet freedom for security reasons. (AP: Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russia has introduced tougher internet laws in the last five years, requiring search engines to delete some search results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services and social networks to store Russian users’ personal data on servers within the country.
The country, like many others including Australia, censors the internet for its citizens using a blacklist of banned sites.
But Russia has a lot of leeway as to what can end up on its blacklist.
Freedom House, a US-based watchdog for freedom and democracy, lists Russia’s internet as “not free”, saying that the Roskomnadzor can block online communication about many things without a court order, including information on “unsanctioned” public rallies.
Russia also passed a law in 2017 that banned providers of virtual private networks (VPNs) — which are used to obscure a user’s internet traffic — if they do not adhere to the banned site blacklist.
Last year the country famously outlawed and tried to block encrypted communications app Telegram.
In a clumsy attempt to stop the app from working, the Roskomnadzor blacklisted IP addresses associated with it — millions of them in fact — many of them to Amazon and Google’s popular cloud-hosting platforms.
This caused havoc with internet traffic in Russia as other services, from internet banking to voice calls on Viber, went down and led to the regulator to unblock many of those addresses.
Telegram still hasn’t been blocked in Russia, despite it being outlawed.
The internet disconnection bill still faces two more votes in Russia’s lower chamber, before it is voted on in the upper house of Parliament and then signed into law by Mr Putin.