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Russia Clarifies Threats That Would Lead It To Decouple RuNet From World Wide Web

Protests in Moscow in March against a sovereign Internet
Protests in Moscow in March against a sovereign Internet

MOSCOW -- Russia's Communications Ministry has specified a list of threats that may necessitate isolation of the country's Internet under a new law approved by President Vladimir Putin on May 1. It's the first time the country's government has clarified the legislation, which has been slammed by rights activists.

In a proposal published on the parliament's online portal, where registered users can critique a proposal on how the new legislation would be implemented in practice, the ministry lists three types of threats under which communications watchdog Roskomnadzor could decouple the Russian segment of the Internet, known as RuNet, from the World Wide Web.

These include a threat to the network's "integrity," explained as the ability to safeguard connections between users; a threat to its resilience through the failure of certain equipment or the occurrence of a natural disaster; and a threat to the network's security, via a hacking attack on service providers' equipment or an instance when the network is subjected to "destabilizing internal or external informational pressure."

The document also allows Roskomnadzor to assume control over the Russian Internet without giving prior notice to providers in cases when "an urgent reaction" is needed.

The proposal comes amid widespread confusion concerning the nature of Russia's so-called "sovereign Internet" law, which allows the government to cut off the country's segment of the web from foreign servers, essentially centralizing its operation under Roskomnadzor, the watchdog agency tasked with overseeing its safety. Among other measures, it requires Internet providers to install equipment to route Russian web traffic through servers in the country.

Surveillance Fears

Critics have warned that the new law will lead to censorship over wide parts of the Internet and allow for greater surveillance by Russian intelligence agencies. Many view it as part of an ambitious government campaign to bring the Internet to heel at a time when the Kremlin is becoming increasingly aware of the web's power to incite protest and civil disobedience.

In several cities, the planned measures to tighten control over the web have elicited demonstrations.

"We expect greater self-censorship in the Russian Internet," Sarkis Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda, an organization that monitors online censorship in Russia, told RFE/RL in March.

Russian officials have defended the legislation as a protective measure in the event the United States was to disable Russia's Internet, and frequently cite the National Cyber Strategy announced by the White House in September 2018 as a threat.

If Russia were to perceive threats to its online security, the law stipulates, Roskomnadzor could essentially seize control of its Internet and assume the prerogative to filter all web traffic in the country.

MTS, Russia's largest network provider, announced on May 23 that it was taking part in a series of government tests relating to deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which will be used by Roskomnadzor should it be called upon to monopolize control over the country's web.

"[This] testing is the only thing being done from our side to prepare for execution of the law," MTS Vice President Andrei Ushatsky told the Russian daily Vedomosti. "Otherwise, we're not preparing in any way."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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