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March 10, 2022updated 27 Jun 2022 4:25am

The rise of Russia’s splinternet

Putin’s internet was a template for authoritarian regimes the world over. Now it is in danger of crumbling.

By Greg Noone

Even before its invasion of Ukraine, independent media was a dying breed on Russia’s corner of the internet. All Russian-language news outlets judged to be spreading ‘fake news’ or showing ‘disrespect’ to the government risked being blacklisted by Roskomnadzor, the state censor. Foreign internet platforms, too, were subject to routine takedown requests by the agency: 123,000 were issued to Google, for example, between 2012 and 2021. Meanwhile, connections to individual parcels of news – a livestream depicting a protest in Moscow, perhaps, or a blog post by opposition leader Alexei Navalny – were routinely smothered or blocked.

The impression of Russia’s online landscape existing in some kind of parallel universe has only deepened since its invasion of Ukraine. Amid general condemnation at Putin’s ‘special operation,’ foreign tech platforms including Twitter and Facebook – companies that maintained a sliver of space where Russians could speak freely online – have now either voluntarily exited the country or been blocked by the state censor. EU sanctions have also seen Cogent Communications, one of its largest ISPs, announce their withdrawal from the Russian market, raising the prospect of the country’s internet being completely severed from the outside world.

It’s a possibility for which Russia has spent years preparing. Last July, the Kremlin announced the successful testing of its ‘sovereign internet’ capability, wherein the country’s internet was purposely disconnected from the mainstream global network. The purpose was “to determine the ability of the ‘Runet’ to work in case of external distortions, blocks and other threats,” according to a source inside the testing group interviewed by Russian media. In reality, the move was the culmination of a grand strategy to tighten controls over domestic information flows online, a campaign that has also required all smartphone manufacturers in the country to preload a selection of suspicious ‘Russian-made’ apps onto the devices before sale.

There is no guarantee, however, that this system will stand up to the enormous pressures foisted on it by the current crisis. After all, Russia’s internet landscape still remains both digitally and physically bonded to the global mainstream in ways that the state will find hard to cut. “Russia is still very much integrated into the global internet,” says Alena Epifanova, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “It still very much depends on the international organisations such as ICANN.”

Indeed, it often seems that the Kremlin is imposing a system of internet surveillance and censorship long after the horse has bolted. Unlike China, where internet infrastructure has been rigorously centralised since the arrival of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s, the Russian state only began work on its system after a long period of (relative) freedom online. As the current crisis continues to disrupt almost every aspect of Russian economic life, it is unclear what the long-term impact of its digital censorship and surveillance apparatus will be on daily users and its IT industry – or whether it will survive in its current form.

russia's splinternet
A woman watches an investigation film by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on January 21, 2021. YouTube remains a haven for Russia’s opposition online. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov / AFP via Getty Images)

The roots of Russia’s splinternet

While Russia’s model of internet governance has roots dating back to the Soviet era, its modern incarnation can be traced back to the re-election of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2012. Putin’s return to the nation’s highest office sparked mass protests, amid fears that Russia was sliding into authoritarianism once again. Meanwhile, from the Kremlin’s point of view, the demonstrations in Red Square – as well as those roiling dictatorships across the Arab world – were testament to the subversive power of the global internet, a project the president would later describe as a CIA conspiracy.

Russia’s first attempts at neutering dissent online were crude. It “was basically a very primitive form of internet filtering, where you have a blacklist of websites, URLs and domain names,” explains Andrei Soldatov, a non-resident senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis and the co-author of The Red Web. Then, in 2017, the regime altered its strategy. It realised, says Soldatov, “that the biggest challenge to its information monopoly comes from ordinary users [when they] are prompted to share some news about what is happening close to them,” a particularly ominous threat to the government if that news concerned popular protests or government corruption.

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That was when the regime embraced deep packet inspection (DPI), a technology that allows it to block or slow traffic to specific strands of the Russian internet without needing to throw whole websites offline. “It works pretty well,” says Soldatov. It’s also a more cost-effective strategy, he adds, than the Chinese system of blocking search terms en-masse. What’s more, by forcing Russia’s ISPs to install DPI hardware, the Putin administration succeeded in imposing this framework from the top down. As such, “a domestic industry of surveillance and censorship has…flourished,” says Dr Francesca Musiani, co-author of ‘Concealing for Freedom: The Making of Encryption, Secure Messaging and Digital Liberties’.

This bid for control over information flows has also had side-effects for the IT sector supporting Russia’s internet. Major players in the market, for example, have been encouraged to use domestic software, although the success of this strategy has been limited. There’s also a sense that the sector as a whole has failed to live up to its true potential. Although it represented 2.7% of Russia’s GDP before it invaded Ukraine, software exports have remained flat, and many of its best and brightest programmers have left to pursue their careers abroad. “Now, we see that major actors in Russia’s IT markets are rather dependent on the Kremlin,” explains Epifanova, which has largely succeeded in its goal of preventing “the development of independent, strong IT players which have their own agenda, and their own capital, and their own influence, within Russia.”

The Putin administration hasn’t completely succeeded in controlling information flows within the Russian internet’s public square, however. From the late 1990s until 2012, ordinary Russians had become used to enjoying a degree of free speech online, a freedom enhanced by the arrival of foreign social media companies and search engines. The Kremlin did its best to impose some measure of control over these firms as well, compelling them to maintain staff and data centres in Russia and subjecting them to regular data removal requests and fines.

Some companies, however, have been better at resisting the Kremlin than others. Google, for example, remains widely used across Russia by the state, pro-government media and ordinary citizens. In times past, this has made the search giant a powerful actor within the constant negotiation between the state and its citizenry on internet freedom, explains Musiani. “Its position is further strengthened by the close dependence of the Russian economy and communications networks on internet giants,” she says.

The Kremlin’s approach has also driven many liberal-minded Russians away from domestic outlets and onto foreign social media, explains Soldatov. “People actually believe that global platforms are still relatively safe for them to discuss sensitive issues,” he says, given their history of reluctance in complying with state takedown requests.

That has changed with the invasion and the subsequent blocking of Twitter and Facebook, Soldatov adds. “People have had no time to get used to that. And that makes them extremely angry.”

A woman watches an investigation film by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on January 21, 2021. YouTube remains a haven for Russia's opposition online. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov / AFP via Getty Images)

Closing the safety valves

In some ways, the current crisis has played into the hands of Russia’s internet censors, who now feel empowered to block many of the country’s last independent media outlets in the name of national security. “We had some sacred cows from the 1990s which we believed Putin would never touch,” Soldatov says, like the radio station Ekho Moskvy. “It’s kind of a symbol of the changes we had right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was just shut down.”

Russia’s growing international isolation has also given it new opportunities to strengthen its grip over its domestic IT industry. Yandex, commonly described as ‘Russia’s Google,’ was widely considered to be the country’s most vibrant technology company, having recently branched into services ranging from taxis to food delivery and self-driving cars. The events of the past fortnight, however, have wiped 75% off its value and triggered rumours of imminent nationalisation. “It’s unclear how Yandex will develop its...supercomputers under the sanctions,” says Epifanova.

Even so, significant gaps remain in Russia’s censorship apparatus. While Facebook and Twitter have been blocked, “they also understand that it’s not possible just to shut down YouTube,” says Epifanova, because it may compromise other Google services the Russian state is dependent on. Citizens have also flocked to install VPNs capable of evading state blocking measures, says Soldatov, allowing news about the war to filter through to whomever is looking for it. “People still share this information,” says Epifanova, fuelling public protests and shifting attitudes toward the invasion across the Russian internet.

Such developments have fuelled speculation that Russia may fall back on its sovereign internet capability in the coming days. Recently, rumours began to spread that Russia would be cut off from the mainstream internet by 11 March, after it emerged that instructions had been issued to businesses by the government to begin switching to domestic DNS services. This was later denied by the country’s Ministry of Digital Development, who added that these directives were issued to help prevent foreign cyberattacks.

In fact, Russia cutting itself off from the global internet would be a logistical nightmare for the Kremlin, explains Musiani. “Russia,” she says, has “more than 3,000 ISPs and a complex, branched-out infrastructure with multiple physical and economic connections with foreign countries. In this context, it is very difficult for ISPs and other internet operators to know exactly how, and to what extent, they depend on other infrastructure components.”

Even if the Russian state doesn’t embrace complete internet isolation, its connections to the outside world are slowly being cut. While ICANN recently rejected a request from the Ukrainian government that Russia’s top-level domains be revoked, the withdrawal of major internet infrastructure companies from the latter has fuelled speculation that the RuNet will be isolated by default.

“I just got the news that Cisco is pulling out,” says Soldatov. “The Russian national infrastructure of the internet was built on Cisco.” Similarly, the withdrawal of Oracle leaves Russia without a way of producing large database management systems. Options for replacing software and hardware from these companies, Soldatov adds, remain limited to Chinese alternatives – which the Russian security services fear will make the country’s communications vulnerable to spying from their southern neighbour – or secrets stolen from the West through Soviet-style industrial espionage.

The true test of the Kremlin’s internet censorship apparatus will be its ability to suppress growing public dissent against the war. It is the kind of extraordinary pressure, however, that similar attempts to control national spaces online do not face. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed its repressive online surveillance and censorship to the wider world, it’s unlikely to dissuade countries including Turkey, Iran, Kazakhstan and India from using similar technologies to control internet information flows. In that sense, says Musiani, “Russia is a laboratory of broader tendencies happening around the world.”

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