The sovereign internet law passed in 2019 meant that the authorities were actively preparing for the possibility of disconnecting the RuNet from the global network. After the full-scale invasion, discussions about shutting down Russia flared up with renewed vigor, and this was proposed from both sides: Ukraine asked to isolate Russia by ICANN, the organization that is responsible for domain names, but was officially denied (ICANN representatives said that they did not have the authority to impose sanctions, also noted that ICANN should make the Internet work, not interfere with it). Many experts, however, called Russia's disconnection from the Internet as part of the sanctions a "disproportionate and unlawful" measure. Such a move, they said, would only make it more difficult for the public to have access to information that could induce Russians to stop supporting the military action, and leave access only to information supplied by the government. Actually, that is why the Kremlin promoted the idea of a “sovereign Runet”.
The “sovereignization” of the Runet is going on quite intensively, but it’s impossible to say that Russia is ready to completely disconnect from the outside world, Sargis Darbinyan, head of the legal practice of Roskomsvoboda, is sure: “There is also the banking sector, international trade - they still communicate with the world, and they need the Internet connected to the global network for this. But these channels are narrowing, and there is less user interaction with foreign services.”
The expert also suggests that in the coming years a complete ban on the transfer of user data outside the country may be introduced. The personal data of Russians has already become the subject of a dispute between the authorities and international companies. In 2016, in Russia, for example, the social network LinkedIn was blocked , explaining this decision by the fact that the platform violated the law and stored personal data of Russian users outside the country.
Aleksey Shkittin, co-founder of the Berlin-based IEDN institute that studies Internet technologies, suggested that the Russian authorities, when they say they have "built a sovereign Internet," mean that they have made a system of supervision and control that allows you to restrict users from accessing information:
“So far, it doesn’t even smell like complete isolation. Yes, technically they made it possible to manage domain resources within the country - the address numbering system, but they did not switch to it. For a complete transition, there must be a totalitarian solution. And still, given who and how they do it, it can take years. There is no magic switch."
The Kremlin has no magic switch. If they decide to cut off Runet from foreign traffic, it will take years
Implementation of the sovereign Internet is possible under certain critical conditions, says Shkittin: “If an international registrar blocks Russian IPs, it will be a no-win situation. Then it will be necessary to build our own registry and switch to a new addressing system, but so far there is no talk of this.”
Darbinyan agrees with this opinion:
“Just to take and entangle the whole country with sovereign Internet networks is quite difficult. On the other hand, there are also economic reasons. If that happens, banks that are still doing business with banks in friendly countries simply won't be able to do so. Naturally, this will affect Russia's foreign trade, but for the time being it still aims to sell its goods and resources to the world. So they can't let that happen."
Filtering, blocking and increased control
The Internet consists of autonomous systems through which data packets move from one IP address to another. For each packet, an optimal route is laid out if it is not forcibly given a path, Shkittin explained:
“On the Internet, there is no clear separation of the Russian “autonomy” from the American one. In fact, the Internet is a single system, it is not divided. Otherwise, we would not be able to communicate with people in another country, whether with or without a VPN. Now you can send a package by different routes, including through the autonomy of Western operators. There is no outside entry into the sovereign internet. This is a completely isolated system, which means that the signal does not leave the country and does not come from outside it. This is not quite a local network, but a kind of existing Internet, but with limited capabilities.
There are two ways to isolate a country, the expert says. You can install a powerful firewall , as they did in China, and filter all external requests. However, in this case, the system can still be fooled through the VPN, because it is not isolated, Skittin noted: “It's a fence. You can climb over it or find a hole in it. And the sovereign Internet is just another entity. You can enter internal numbering, completely filter out networks within the country, maintain a register of domains and ip-addresses in order to issue them yourself. And then we will have a complete disconnection from external sources and nothing will help, including VPN.”
When the "sovereign Internet" was just announced, The Insider asked sources in Google's leadership whether the company was ready to switch to new registries within Russia. Google responded that after technical specialists analyzed these plans, they came to the conclusion that Russia is simply not ready for this reform, so the company does not consider these plans realistic.
According to Shkittin, he previously saw signs that the Russian authorities were planning to follow the path of a full-fledged “sovereign Runet” with alternative registers for IP addresses and domains, but now, apparently, no work is being done in this direction:
“They are not very good at it. Most likely, technically it turned out to be more difficult than they expected. And no one really wants this. I look at various public procurements of the RKN, but I don’t see such work there yet. Maybe, of course, it goes underground or has already been done. But at the moment I don't see a "sovereign internet". There is a strict filtering, prohibitions on any actions on the network, but there is a connection. It is not a separate network. This is not North Korea."
In North Korea, in fact, they built an internal local network, which may be enough for a country with a small number of users, but it will be difficult to implement this on a Russian scale, the expert explained:
“Even within a small company, transferring a registry from one IP address to another is a really big problem, but on the scale of Rostelecom it is just a disaster. Three years ago, Rostelecom had about 10 million IP addresses, roughly speaking, 10 million potential nodes. This is fantastic work. I don't even know who will do it. Therefore, I think that the sabotage of this idea at the operator level is present. This can only be realized with the full support of all operators, and none of them clearly wants to disconnect from an external resource.
It will be difficult to implement the scenario of North Korea for Runet
Therefore, for now, Russia will most likely continue to follow the path of installing a "fence" - filtering, blocking and strengthening control, suggests Shkittin. He noted that the authorities are now trying to figure out how to deal with VPNs, but, apparently, they do not plan to leave the world numbering registry.
Darbinyan considers it not very appropriate to compare Russia with either North Korea, where there has never been any free Internet, or with China, where the Internet was originally built differently:
“The system in Russia is now more similar to the “golden shield” system in China, but nevertheless it differs due to the historical nature of the development of the Russian Internet. In China, there were not so many cross-border transitions, chaotically scattered telecom operators that worked on their own for many years, and, of course, the implementation took place differently there. But today the Russian system of censorship is getting closer to the Chinese.”
The expert explained that he meant the transition from one-stage filtering, which took place approximately from 2012 to 2022, when all resources and prohibited content were blocked by telecom operators, to a different legal landscape and technological base that had developed by 2023.
There are now three filters, Darbinyan elaborated:
“In addition to the operator filter, there is also a TSPU filter, which is controlled by Roskomnadzor ( TSPU is a technical means of countering threats, a software and hardware system that allows you to restrict access to information). This filter has been used to slow down Twitter, block Instagram, VPN services, Smart Voting . That is, traffic is blocked even at the nodes of telecom operators, and they themselves do not know what is happening in their networks and how Roskomnadzor changes the configuration. With the adoption of the law on social networks, a third filter was added. All prohibited content that was not blocked at the previous levels and is generated by the users themselves, social networks are required to delete on their own.
Sanctions only play into the hands of "sovereign Runet"
The departure of many foreign companies from Russia, technological sanctions - all this was only into the hands of the Kremlin, which takes the entire audience to completely controlled and censored Russian platforms, Darbinyan is sure:
“Foreign sites are being replaced by Russian platforms and Russian solutions. Users are accustomed to the so-called “one-stop-shop”, when you buy mail, disk space and other services on the same platform. With Google rapidly losing ground in Russia, more and more people are switching to Yandex.”
The exit of foreign companies helped the Kremlin to drag the audience to fully controlled Russian platforms
He also noted that Apple's withdrawal from the Russian market and the ban on imports of gadgets worth more than $300 to Russia contributed to the expansion of Chinese distributors. They offer phones pre-installed withRuStore , where there is no prohibited content, and Russian applications, which, as the expert expects, will be in demand by users. Not everyone will delete them and try to install, for example, PlayMarket, he is sure.
Last year, many new solutions were presented by the Russian authorities, says Darbinyan. Among them, for example, the introduction of a national SSL certificate . (SSL and TLS certificates are security certificates that encrypt data and act as a kind of "identity card" for the site. They are issued by special certification authorities.) Some Russian sites now work on this certificate, and without it they do not function: "This certificate is only enabled by Yandex.Browser, all other browsers have rejected it as an untrusted certificate provider."
Why it’s too early to relax and how to bypass blockages
The number of blocked sites after a full-scale invasion has increased dramatically: according to Roskomsvoboda, over the past year, about 20,000 different services and Internet portals fell under “military censorship”. This trend will continue in the future, Darbinyan believes. In addition, the expert expressed concern that the last sites that independent Russian media and bloggers rely on, such as YouTube and Telegram, could also be blocked: “If we are to prepare for something, then for ongoing restrictions, blocking of individual resources and everything in this spirit."
The last platforms independent Russian media and bloggers rely on, like YouTube and Telegram, could also be blocked.
Sources at Google also confirmed to The Insider that they consider it very likely that YouTube will be blocked in Russia within the next year.
According to Darbinyan, another aspect that many are afraid of is the transition to totalitarian practices in the form of a mass involvement of users in criminal or administrative penalties:
“The cases of defamation, of fakes are measured in thousands, this is still not a mass character. But a rather dangerous trend is the use of artificial intelligence systems in this work, for example, Oulus and Vepr presented at the beginning of the year, which should automatically search for prohibited content.
The biggest concern is what will happen next: whether such a system will begin to make legally significant decisions, for example, draw up protocols on administrative offenses in an automated mode, Darbinyan argues. This practice has already been tested during the pandemic in Moscow, when fines were issued automatically without drawing up a protocol based on the operation of the face recognition system, the expert added.
Now these systems can put up "red flags", send information to law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal cases, he continued, noting that this situation greatly affects self-censorship: freedom of speech and expression is seriously limited for users:
“We see these trends intensifying and could lead to changes in legislation soon to allow these systems to go further and already make legally relevant decisions.”
In the words of another expert who wished to remain anonymous, “the Kremlin failed to close the Internet, so they went the old way and began to massively ‘close’ users for likes and comments.”
Given the forecasts of increased control in the Russian segment of the Internet, experts advised using various services to bypass blocking. Skittin recommended using the VPN Generator service to bypass blocking, which was created by the team of the Internet Defense Society (IDS) with the support of the IEDN Institute.
Darbinyan recalled the Censor Tracker plugin from Roskomsvoboda, which allows you to bypass blocking, as well as warning users if the site they are going to visit is in the register of information dissemination organizers and can collect and transmit data about their activity to law enforcement agencies.
"Transparent Internet" - prepare your passport
Before the end of the year, Russia plans to launch a pilot project of a secure "absolutely transparent" Internet, available only to citizens of the Russian Federation with a personal identifier, which can be obtained by registering with a passport, Vedomosti reported , citing the deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, Information Technology and Andrey Svintsov's contacts. It will not be possible to enter this network from "anonymous devices". Thanks to this, intelligence agencies will be able to easily "find the one who owns this account." However, according to the deputy, the “unsecured Internet” will also remain, but in this territory, users will themselves be responsible for their personal data and other security issues. True, the MK found out from the deputy that the pilot was planned to be carried out "within one large company." Earlier, back in early June, Svintsov spoke about this idea on the air of the radio station "Moscow Speaks".
“Large company” most likely refers to a large provider, such as Rostelecom, says Shkittin. It would be strange to test such a system in a large company that already has an intranet, the expert believes:
“Most likely, we are talking about working out access to the Internet with user identification through the State Services. In fact, they did not come up with anything new. Probably, the telecom operator will offer its customers to choose access: they want to use the protected mode or the normal one. I assume that there will still be propaganda of the safe Internet as such - “more reliable” and so on, and the ordinary Internet will be presented as a terrible evil.
The expert also believes that this test period can be used for psychological preparation of users - so that they get used to the need to log in: “In fact, there has been no anonymity on the Internet for a long time - a person can already be calculated by IP and data of his device. So this project, rather, is a strengthening of psychological control: when logging in, the user will not abstractly assume that he can be found if something happens, but will already know for sure that any actions that he has performed are in plain sight. I think that this will have a very strong psychological impact on the population and will stop people from any, so to speak, illegal actions from the point of view of the state.”
In addition, theoretically, the authorities can introduce a biometric verification system that will allow you to log in using biometric data, the expert says. He notes that technically, after authorization, the user will not go to another Internet, but will be in another section of it. Most likely, this section will be limited to trusted resources that will be whitelisted. Such a scheme is simpler than blacklisting millions of unwanted sites, Shkittin explained: “Nevertheless, this is still not a sovereign Internet: structurally, the Internet will not change. It's just going to be a very heavily regulated part of it."
A colleague of deputy Svintsov, Alexander Khinshtein, said in early June that he did not know about such initiatives: “I do not support hype for the sake of hype. I am not aware of such initiatives <...> Much remains to be done, but not accessing the Internet with a passport (at least in the foreseeable future).” He also said that it is possible to remove all negative content on Internet resources only when users are authorized by passport. А в условиях, когда пользователи получают доступ в сеть анонимно, действовать должны правоохранители.
На том, что власти не обсуждают обязательную идентификацию пользователей интернета по паспортам, настаивает и глава Минцифры Максут Шадаев: «Здесь могу гарантировать — все останется как есть»
«Человечество теряет интернет»
Все страны пытаются регулировать интернет, отмечают эксперты. Полной вольницы нет нигде, подчеркивает Шкиттин. О блокировках по всему миру говорит и Дарбинян, отмечая, что к блокировке разных ресурсов прибегают и страны Евросоюза: «Например, страны Балтии блокируют все сайты российской пропаганды, но не только их: иногда, не разбираясь, блокируют все подчистую. Конечно, в странах с авторитарным режимом это ощущается больше всего, например, у Ирана с Китаем и Туркменистаном больше общего, чем со странами Балтии или Латинской Америки. Но, конечно, эта проблема существует. Человечество теряет интернет как единую глобальную платформу, которая доступна со всех уголков света, ввиду введения ряда ограничений».
Кроме того, Дарбинян напомнил о предложении европарламентариев запретить сквозное шифрование, которое может сказаться на существенном количестве ресурсов: например, на мессенджерах WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal. Шкиттин отметил, что любая страна, даже самая демократическая, многое пытается запретить в интернете:
«Кто-то запрещает качать торренты, кто-то блокирует российские домены, где-то интернет отключают на время беспорядков. Когда все только начиналось, интернет делали хорошие люди для хороших людей, а пришли все. И когда все пришли, оказалось, что у всех свои представления о свободе, праве, возможностях».