Free speech advocates fear that Russia’s government is preparing to intensify the country’s digital isolation by disconnecting it from the global internet. But in fact it is more likely that the West would cut off Russian traffic from the web, according to a report by investigative journalism website The Bell.
In July 2021, Russia disconnected from the World Wide Web in a trial of its “sovereign internet” technology. Slated as a “security operation”, state-run telecommunications operator Rostelecom and Russia’s big four mobile phone providers co-ordinated to temporarily disconnect Russia’s section of the internet. They reportedly installed equipment to enable the filtering of online traffic so that Russia’s internet segment could continue to function independently from the global web.
Now, government documents on Belarusian news agency Nexta suggest that the Russian government is preparing to disconnect from the internet again. The telegrams instruct government organs to transfer all servers and domains to the Russian zone, remove foreign elements from html, and hand over detailed information on the network infrastructure and traffic of their sites.
Such a step would not be out of line with Russia’s actions to date. From the blocking of news providers like Dozhd, Ekho Moskvy and BBC Russia to the banning of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the Russian government has been steadily reducing the access of ordinary Russians to independent sources of information online since it invaded Ukraine on February 24.
But launching Russia’s “sovereign internet” would be a long-winded process. Sargis Darbinyan, head of legal practice at digital rights NGO Roskomsvoboda, told The Bell that it would take no fewer than three months to reconfigure Russia’s internet segment to work with forwarding tables.
Aside from the simple practicalities, it is also not clear that disconnecting Russia’s internet would be a strategic boon for the government. “The internet is designed for international connectivity – Russian business and even government agencies need communication channels with foreign representative offices. Usually, they flip the switch to enforce a shutdown during a period of mass unrest, but this isn’t the case in Russia now. Once the unrest has come to an end, the Internet switches back on, because, at a minimum, the country needs to carry out bank clearing,” Stanislav Shakirov, the technical director of Roskomsvoboda, said in an interview with The Bell.
It is not in Russia’s best interests to disconnect its internet segment from the global internet. This would damage the state’s ability to receive and pay overseas loans, trade and access external information. Instead, we are likely to see a continuation of the current trend: targeting and banning specific sites which are deemed dangerous.
If Russia’s internet goes down entirely, it is more likely to be the result of a choice by Western companies and governments. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov called for Russia’s access to the internet to be severely limited as early as February 28.
Although Ukraine’s request has not been met by western governments, Russia has already been disconnected by one internet backbone carrier: American service provider Cogent. On March 4, Cogent announced that it would disconnect Russia’s servers, leading to a reduction in bandwidth available for overall connectivity. This only affects 3-4% of traffic, but slows down some sites in particular. It could also potentially be a precedent for other service providers considering cutting Russia off. In theory, if enough western providers decided to disconnect their Russian servers, it would critically slow down Russia’s internet access, all but taking it offline.
“If we are switched off completely, services will begin to drop, and devices will fail. In addition, no one can guarantee that the systems managing road traffic, factories, security and other areas of activity do not depend on external resources,” Kazarian from the Internet Research Institute told The Bell. In an extreme scenario, all smartphone applications could stop working entirely.
China has been working on its Great Firewall for 20 years already, and has ploughed enormous resources and money into the project. Russia, by contrast, only introduced legislation for the centralised management of internet within Russia in November 2019. It would not be prepared for the disconnection of its internet, which would surely wreak havoc on infrastructure and business across the country.