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Q&A: Hurdles Ahead As Russia Surges On With 'Sovereign Internet' Plan

A woman holds a banner reading "Hands off the Internet" during a rally in Moscow in April.

Draft legislation is in the pipeline in Russia that backers say is an effort to ensure the operation of a Russian Internet if access to servers located abroad is cut off or to prevent enemies abroad from co-opting Russian readers to undermine Moscow authorities.

Critics warn the scheme is part of an effort by President Vladimir Putin's government to increase state control over the Internet and facilitate censorship, and the bill passed in the first of three votes in the State Duma on February 12.

What is clear is that the legislation reflects persistent tension between Russia and the West, where governments accuse Moscow of using cyberattacks and social-media activity to sow discord and increase its influence abroad.

RFE/RL spoke with Tanya Lokot, an assistant professor at Dublin City University who focuses on urban media and Internet freedom in Russia and Ukraine, about Russia's intentions, the biggest "unknowns," and whether its goal is realistic.

RFE/RL: Obviously, such a move immediately raises eyebrows over the Russian government's true intentions. Is this just a test? Or is it a step by officials to begin limiting Internet access?

Tanya Lokot:
You're right that it raises eyebrows, given Russia's history with stifling free speech and attempting to exert control over all spheres of mediated life.

I think at this stage it is very much an experiment to test the technical capabilities of the infrastructure and the various intermediaries and to see where the weak spots might be should a real disconnect occur. But in terms of limiting Internet access -- well, the pitch here is that Russia's main priority is to ward itself off from external threats and be able to preserve some semblance of normal function within the Russian Internet segment in the event of an attack from without.

Tanya Lokot
Tanya Lokot

So they're presenting it as very much an issue of strategic governance and national security, and as an emergency measure of last resort. And it is that, to an extent. Would it add to the restrictions already in place in the Runet [the Russian segment of the Internet]? Certainly, if it works as planned.

RFE/RL: How difficult a task is it to "disconnect" from the Internet, and is it even possible or feasible for Russia to do so?

Essentially, we're talking about disconnecting Russia from the global DNS (Domain Name) System and preventing traffic from being routed through exchange points outside of Russia. Technically, it is certainly possible, but it would require a lot of preparation and putting in place a lot of infrastructure -- which means funding has to come from somewhere.

And while we have examples like China, where there is a sort of walled garden in terms of access to a large chunk of the World Wide Web, Russia certainly has a long way to go before it could achieve something like this.

The technical implementation and the funding for it are currently the biggest unknowns. There's little clarity on these in the bill currently going through the Duma, and this is one of the biggest criticisms from all kinds of actors, even those who support the plan in theory.

RFE/RL: As a risk-management move, it seems to make sense for a country to have a standalone net that is less vulnerable to hostile forces, especially from abroad. China, for example, has already made similar moves. Do you think this is something more countries may try as well?

Well, if you look at some of the other discussions on Internet sovereignty, other countries have made statements and taken steps to that end. There's been a big discussion around ICANN (the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names And Numbers, the nonprofit organization that coordinates and maintains key aspects of the Internet) and how it was until recently controlled by the U.S.

Brazil has discussed taking steps to minimize dependence on the U.S.-based infrastructure, as well, as early as 2013.

In Europe, there have also been discussions of securing EU-based data and connections (e.g., the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, GDPR, etc.).

So the trend towards "Balkanization" is not new and is fairly widespread. But I think in Russia's case it's the scope of it and the claim that they would like to be completely independent in terms of infrastructure and traffic routing that causes alarm. Russian digital-rights advocates fear -- justly so -- that this would simply lead to further centralization of control over the networked public sphere and would make it even easier to stifle dissent, as well as allow for tighter control of people's access to external opinions and information and of alternative tools of accessing banned content, such as VPNs (virtual private networks).

RFE/RL: Major Russian tech companies such as Yandex and Mail.Ru have supported the initiative. But what will public reaction inside Russia be to such a move?

I think the "test" is, in part, also a test to see how the public will react. Given that polls tell us that many Russians do believe Russian national security is an issue and requires some measures, not everyone might be unhappy -- but those who are already protesting the tightening of state control will obviously protest even louder.

Certainly, having the technical capability to centrally manage an autonomous Runet will make surveillance and censorship easier -- so civil-rights activists, opposition actors, [and] digital-rights advocates are issuing notes of protest already. Some industry players have also rung the alarm in terms of what this push for autonomy and the costs of new infrastructure would mean for Internet companies -- likely a rise in consumer tariffs and their own operational costs, as well as destroying Russia's investment potential from external players.

Mail.Ru is essentially owned by Kremlin-friendly [billionaire Alisher] Usmanov, so their position does not surprise me -- they've been long cooperating with state and law enforcement.

Yandex is slightly more surprising, but you have to remember that Russia is their biggest market, so they have to walk the line in terms of adapting to local realities, even though in the past they have opposed some other government initiatives aimed at restricting Internet freedom. They can certainly say they support the idea of national cybersecurity -- they would look weird if they didn't -- and they will potentially have new opportunities in the Runet if players like Google are shut out of the market.

But I doubt they are overjoyed about the prospect of only doing business in the autonomous Russian "web," as they are currently also working in markets other than Russia.

Still, I think there's a big difference between supporting this "autonomous" experiment as a measure of last reserve in case of a cyberwar and supporting a complete disconnect or firewall. I'm curious as to what Yandex and Mail.Ru will say once the plans become more definite.