On Monday, Russia will conduct its first test of what they’ve dubbed “RuNet,” which will severe the entire nation from the global internet, isolating Russia from the rest of the world digitally. All internet traffic during the test disconnection will be re-directed through internal Russian state routing points and servers managed by Roskomnazor, the government’s federal communications service. The disconnection will be a temporary one with future tests expected to occur annually provided the system works. If it does, it will grant Russia the ability to more strictly control the flow of information between its citizens and the world at large.
On Monday, the government approved the provision on conducting exercises to ensure the stable, safe and holistic functioning of the Internet and public communications networks in the Russian Federation,” an article published this week by Russian state owned media outlets reads. “The exercises are held at the federal (in the territory of the Russian Federation) and regional (in the territory of one or more constituent entities of the Russian Federation) levels.”
This decision is coupled with a rollout of a new process that enables “deep packet inspection” of data being transmitted through Russia’s digital infrastructure. This method will potentially allow Russia to censor content within its borders far more effectively than ever before. Currently, China uses a similar method as part of its “Great Firewall.”
The disconnect exercise has legitimate security implications for the Russian government, which is clear about its preference to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign internet providers, as well as elements of web infrastructure that fall under the purview of foreign governments. This action allows the Kremlin to identify any potential issues with severing ties with the global internet, and help ensure Russia’s internet continues to run domestically even amid times of conflict. The effort includes building Russia’s own address routing system that could replace the international domain name system (DNS) if and when global lines are cut.
However, doing this opens the door for another, more nefarious, objective many believe the Kremlin has in mind: establishing a stranglehold on internet usage within the country’s borders. By routing all Russian web traffic internally, the government can lay the groundwork required to create a censored version of the peoples’ internet, similar to what China already employs.
The Russian government, particularly since seeing the role social media played in the Arab Spring, has wanted over the last decade to exert tight control over the online information space within Russia’s borders,” said Justin Sherman, a cybersecurity policy fellow at New America who studies internet governance and digital authoritarianism. “Free information flows are a threat to regime stability, and they need to be controlled, the narrative goes.”
Russia’s media is already an almost entirely state-controlled method of information distribution, but Russians have still been able to engage with news produced and distributed outside of the nation’s borders online. The combination of Russia’s ability to quickly sever digital ties with the globe in a state of emergency, coupled with powerful new censorship capabilities of information distributed within their borders will make it easier than ever before for Russia to control the perceptions of its citizens, as well as perceptions of Russia from the rest of the world. Feasibly speaking, this level of control would allow the Russian government to keep things like protests, civil unrest, and even government responses to such things all but a secret — with no images or videos surfacing on social media, no news reports from the scene, and no domestic news coverage whatsoever.
When Russia passed its domestic internet bill into law, it wasn’t clear how much the government would actually work to make it happen, but now it’s clear they do intend to modify systems so the internet within Russian borders can be cut off from the global net at will,” Sherman said.
“These disconnection tests which Russia has planned for the near future—as well as, according to documents, annually going forward—are steps in the direction of making this so-called RuNet work. They also line up with a series of international pushes by authoritarian governments to make ‘cyber sovereignty’ of this kind more palatable to the global community.”
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