The Kremlin is expanding its digital reach. But this time, Moscow's aims are domestic.
On 12 February the Russian Duma gave overwhelming preliminary approval to a bill backed by the Kremlin intended to ensure the operation of the internet inside the country if the authorities cut off access to the Worldwide Web. Such a system, supporters claim, would protect Russia in the event of a cyberwar by routing traffic through domestic servers. But it also would allow the authorities to filter internet traffic coming into Russian from the outside, and is thus part of a longstanding drive by the government to facilitate censorship by increasing state control over the internet. The draft legislation faces two more votes before heading to the upper house. Despite the misgivings of some parliamentarians about the project’s cost and technical feasibility, however, passage and signature by Putin in largely its current form is virtually assured.
The bill, an amendment to an existing communications law, calls for Russian web traffic and data to be rerouted through points controlled by the state and the creation of a domestic Domain Name System (DNS) to allow the internet to continue functioning in Russia even if it is cut off from foreign infrastructure. To achieve these goals the legislation would require the installation of specialized equipment that would make it easier to block websites banned by the government, require providers to submit to the centralization of internet traffic in the event of a national threat, and provide for training and drills that would help key people in the internet industry and government to foresee threats and work out measures to counter them.
Russia takes a territorial approach to its “information space”—the media, potential audience, and infrastructure—which it views as defined by a country’s borders and immediate neighborhood. As Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Sergey Naryshkin said on April 27, 2017, “The task of strengthening information sovereignty is as relevant as increasing the defensive potential or developing the national economy” in the ‘post-truth’ era.” This concept reflects the Kremlin’s broader understanding of geopolitics and the importance it places on national sovereignty. Russia long has carried out cyberattacks and used the internet -- particularly social networks such as Facebook and Twitter -- to attempt to sow discord, create chaos, and interfere in elections in the West. An attached note when the draft legislation was first placed on the State Duma's website in December claimed that the legislation was proposed "taking into consideration the aggressive nature of the September 2018 U.S. national cybersecurity strategy," in which "Russia directly and without any evidence is accused of cyberattacks."
In fact, the Kremlin’s efforts to control the internet began well before the deterioration of relations with the West. In 2011-12, the authorities created the “Digital Society Initiative,” in response to the widespread protests -- fueled by social media -- that erupted after Putin announced he would return to the presidency. (Before then the Russian internet was almost a completely uncensored space developed by the telecommunications industry with little consultation or coordination with the government of power ministries). The Digital Society Initiative explicitly mentioned that the Russian internet would be “mirrored” – for each foreign website or search engine there would be a Russian duplicate with filtered content.
Constantly evolving and with some setbacks, the effort since then always has had a primary purpose: stripping the internet of its ability to mobilize people out onto the streets. The authorities have clamped down on social media, giving censors and the power ministries the option of removing content deemed dangerous and to identify trouble makers. These efforts have had some successes – the government’s persecution of bloggers, for example, has limited debate on Russian social media. Since 2015, moreover, the authorities have tried to further strengthen their ability to control online discourse by trying to develop its ability to cut off the entire country or a particular region from the outside world. Indeed, turning off the internet in the Magas region of Ingushetia last October seemed to calm social unrest. This drive went hand in glove with other measures intended to ensure control. Separately in December 2018 a group of Duma members introduced a package of bills that would punish “fake news” but could serve as a pretext for further restrictions on social media. The Kremlin also has pressured Western internet companies such as Google to delete websites banned in Russia from its search results.
Despite the certain eventual passage of the internet autonomy legislation, the Duma debate last week raised sharp questions about whether the bill actually would work. LDPR lawmaker Sergei Ivanov sharply questioned whether Russia had the expertise to manufacture the technology needed to make the Russian segment of the World Wide Web independent from the rest of the global network as the bill requires. "Russia does not produce any IT hardware,” he said, “only cables, which some people better hang themselves on." Aleksei Kudrin, head of Russia's Audit Chamber and a longtime former finance minister who is close to Putin, tweeted that the bill was adopted in the first reading "too hurriedly and without open dialogue with IT and the industrial community." Putin himself has repeatedly admitted that the internet is difficulty to control. The Kremlin’s well-publicized, futile attempts last spring to restrict access to the Telegram messenger app led to interruptions in the operations of many third party services but practically did not affect the availability of Telegram in the Russian Federation. With the Russian internet now global, moreover, the cost of a complete shutdown is likely to be prohibitive. The funding needed to allow the bill to accomplish its goals does not appear to be available at the moment.
The Kremlin reportedly is considering whether to disconnect briefly from the global internet before April 1 as part of a test of its cyber defenses. The test also is expected to involve internet service providers (ISPs) demonstrating that they can direct data to government-controlled routing points. These will filter traffic, so that data sent between Russians reaches its destination, but any designed for foreign systems is discarded. The authorities also reportedly soon will adopt new technology for blocking sites such as Telegram. Given the technological and financial challenges, however, the new architecture probably will fall well short of the firewall the Kremlin wants. More likely are additional restrictions on political information, more efficient means of detecting and suppressing online dissent, and perhaps some shutdowns of a few media sources with democratic agendas.
CEPA StratCom is an online journal covering crucial topics in strategic communications in the transatlantic community. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Donald N. Jensen
22 February 2019