Russia’s Domestic Internet Is a Threat to the Global Internet

Photo illustration of a map of Russia outlined with an ethernet cable.

Over the past year, the Russian government has spoken at length about the establishment of a domestic internet. The idea, according to lawmakers and those in the Kremlin, is to have an internet that can be tightly controlled by the state—and potentially disconnected from the global net entirely.

Now, Russia plans to execute a so-called disconnection test of the internet sometime in October—right ahead of Nov. 1, when a new law about domestic internet kicks into gear. Russia plans to then repeat this test at least once a year. What some had called fantasy is now closer to reality, and the implications are important for global cybersecurity and what may occur in Russia as a result.

For brief historical context: In February, a draft law was introduced in the Russian Parliament that aimed to make this long-discussed idea of a domestic internet a reality. This draft underwent subsequent revisions, although the gist of the proposal is the same: giving broader and deeper regulatory oversight of the internet to Roskomnadzor, the Russian internet regulator. (Back in March, Robert Morgus and I wrote that this “RuNet” was not a new idea, and many technical and political challenges lay ahead for Russia.) Before the proposal was signed, there were rumblings of a “disconnect test” scheduled for April 1. While that didn’t take place, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the bill into law in May, with it planned to take effect on Nov. 1. Since then, news about the RuNet has been relatively quiet. That is, until recently, when it became clear the Russian government has been busy since the law’s passage.

For one, “equipment is being installed on the networks of major telecom operators,” Alexander Zharov, head of Roskomnadzor, told reporters. Tests will be carried out “carefully” in the first round, he said, in order to ensure that traffic and servers are not affected. Then, “combat mode” tests will be initiated. It’s unclear what combat mode means, but presumably this is something closer (at least in theory) to total isolation of the RuNet, perhaps in response to an emergency.

The Russian government has also purportedly started rolling out deep packet inspection, a more sophisticated internet filtering technique, which it started testing last year. As highlighted in reporting by independent Russian news outlet Meduza, this may certainly relate to the Russian government’s repeated—and largely unsuccessful—efforts to ban use of the encrypted messaging app Telegram. The filtering techniques used by the government weren’t precise enough, so the app’s use of workarounds enables Russian users to circumvent censorship mechanisms.

But a rollout of deep packet inspection is also broader than just looking to block encrypted messaging services. Deep packet inspection is a powerful tool for internet filtering in general—for instance, look at how China uses it as part of its Great Firewall. Since better control of internet traffic that flows into and out of Russia is a core component of the push for a domestic Russian internet, the use of DPI therefore plays well into the RuNet goal.

Other regulatory pushes continue as well, such as an effort to require Facebook and Twitter to store Russian users’ data within Russian borders by the end of the year. This practice of storing certain data locally—termed data localization—can be employed for a variety of reasons, from cost savings (i.e., it’s cheaper to have certain data located in a certain place) to privacy protections (i.e., desires to try to keep data away from foreign eyes). But the Russian government has been particularly focused on requiring data localization for foreign firms, presumably to get access to encrypted communications. For instance, Roskomnadzor has pushed Apple to locally store certain kinds of data, and the government has enacted rules to force companies to store user data and encryption keys in certain places. This recent effort focused on Facebook and Twitter is an extension of this yearslong battle.

With all of these and, likely, other yet-to-be-reported changes since May, a disconnection test of the Russian internet in the near future looks more likely. There are a number of motives at play behind this push for a domestic internet, including (but not limited to) a growing desire on the part of many authoritarian governments to exert greater sovereignty over the internet within their borders; fears in the Kremlin, particularly on the part of Putin, about the free flow of information and its potential to undermine regime stability; reactions in the Russian government to the U.S. Defense Department’s “defend forward” cyber strategy, which involves more action by the U.S. military to deter cyberattacks and stop them closer to the source; and a desire to justify practices like tighter internet censorship, surveillance, and control by depicting Russia as under constant information and cyberwar onslaught from foreign powers. All of these drivers make it unlikely that Russia will abandon this domestic net pursuit in the near future.

The Russian government, like many governments today, is increasingly concerned about reliance on foreign information communication technologies. Pushing for greater supply chain independence, in this vein, could include reducing Russian society’s reliance on the global internet. It’s also about different understandings of “information security”—which we take in the West to mean the technical protection of 1s and 0s, but has greater cultural significance in Russia’s long history of the state controlling media like television and the internet. Rhetoric around a “global and open internet” pushed by many liberal democracies has been perceived far differently in the Russian government due to different values and strategic objectives, yes, but also due to cultural differences. This, too, is unlikely to change in the near future.

As the U.S.-China technological confrontation intensifies, it’s important to not overlook other countries—in this case, Russia—and how they fit into global cooperation and competition over digital technologies and their regulation. The Russian government is in the process of drafting an artificial intelligence strategy, for instance, and Sino-Russian cooperation continues to deepen in economic, military, and technological dimensions. Testing a domestic internet, therefore, is not just another step in the pursuit of a practical goal—a controlled, isolatable domestic internet—it signifies the Russian government’s commitment to technological sovereignty, especially from the West.

For all these reasons, the implications—unlike the RuNet—are hardly constrained to Russian borders. The Russians may be pushing internet fragmentation deeper than ever before, and their actions may inspire others to follow suit. The implications for human rights are also pronounced, as well as for businesses that may desire to operate in the Russian market and have already run into regulatory challenges, like the mandated storage of certain data within Russia’s borders.

Russia will undoubtedly face setbacks in its push to create a domestic internet. After all, technical implementation of such a project would be difficult for any country. But as it moves toward the capabilities for an internet disconnection test, this could mark a significant moment in the history of the network we once called truly global.