20 years under Putin: a timeline

The official goal of the “sovereign internet” bill signed by Vladimir Putin into law on May 1 is to secure the uninterrupted operation of the Runet in case of disconnection from the global infrastructure of the World Wide Web. In reality, this law allows the Russian government to gain centralized control over the Runet and, if need be, to shut down internet services in entire regions of the country. 


Irina Yarovaya and Andrei Klishas are among the key legislators responsible for the restrictive laws in Russia's Federal Assembly. Klishas is one of the authors of the “sovereign internet” law. Photo: flikr.


Tropes of the information war

According to Freedom House’s 2018 “Freedom on the Net” report, Russia ranks 53rd out of 65 countries—“not free.” The report specifically points to the concentration of the communications market (e.g. state-owned Rostelecom holds 37 percent of the broadband internet segment), substantial restrictions on content (on issues concerning the Ukraine conflict, opposition activities, LGBTQ, etc.), and violations of user rights, including rollback of anonymity, government access to personal data, persecution of bloggers, etc. The level of internet freedom in Russia has been declining for the sixth year in a row, says the report.

The law on sovereign internet is a logical continuation of the Kremlin’s political course taken in 2012 following the mass protests on Sakharov Avenue and Bolotnaya Square, and is directed at tightening internet regulation and strengthening control over digital communities. However, it was only after the annexation of Crimea and the Western sanctions against Russia that the Kremlin set about pursuing this course with real conviction, motivated by at least two political objectives: to limit Russian people’s access to “undesirable” information and to “safeguard” Runet infrastructure in case of further sanctions, such as disconnecting Russia from the global web.

The Kremlin views the United States as the key threat to the Runet—a view articulated by Vladimir Putin in April 2014 after the first round of sanctions over Crimea had been rolled out by the West. Putin claimed that the internet “emerged as a special project by CIA, and is developing as such.” However, this view was later refuted by the “inventor of the World Wide Web,” Tim Berners-Lee, who reminded the Russian president that the internet had been created “with the help of U.S. state funding, but was spread by academics.”

But the fact that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization responsible for managing databases related to internet domain names and numerical spaces, is within the U.S. jurisdiction, is sufficient proof for the Kremlin that the U.S. threat is real. This view persists despite numerous attempts to dismantle this myth. Showing commitment to the chosen course, in March 2014, Russia’s Ministry of Communications, along with the Ministry of Defense, Federal Security Service (FSB), and major telecom providers, held its first training session to evaluate threats to the Runet, including potential disconnection from abroad, and concluded that it is, in fact, quite vulnerable.

The state encroachment in online affairs is only one part of the larger information war being waged by the Kremlin on both domestic and foreign fronts. The parameters of this war can be traced in official documents. At the end of 2015, Putin signed the National Security Strategy, which unambiguously stated that Russia’s main foe is the United States. A year later, the Information Security Doctrine noted that “some countries” (the U.S.) strive to use their technological superiority to dominate in the information space. In this context, the doctrine continues, Russia must neutralize their destabilization activities and deter damaging information influence. Finally, the 2017 Strategy of Information Society Development in Russia until 2030 emphasized the need to provide Russian people with “high-quality” and “trustworthy” information, which is why, among other measures, the country had to shift to national hard- and software and to protect the Runet’s “critical infrastructure.”

Over the last five years, the Russian government has mooted various scenarios of plausible “defense”: developing a fully isolated Russian internet, applying its own Great Firewall along Chinese lines, establishing an independent internet for the BRICS. Eventually, the idea of a “sovereign Runet” prevailed. As a formal pretext to initiate the bill, the State Duma used the U.S. National Cyber Strategy, published in September 2018. It names Russia as one of the key strategic adversaries of the United States, alongside China, Iran, and North Korea.


The Essence of “Defense”

Amendments to the laws “On Communications” and “On Information,” collectively known as the law “On Sovereign Internet,” were first introduced by three Russian legislators at the end of 2018. They are well-known Kremlin loyalists: Andrei Klishas, Lyudmila Bokova, and Andrei Lugovoy (Lugovoy is also wanted in Britain for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko). On April 16 the State Duma passed the bill, on April 22 it was approved by the Council of the Federation, and on May 1 Vladimir Putin signed it into law. The law takes force, partially on November 1, and fully on January 1, 2021.

According to the law, in case of an external threat to the Runet, it can be switched to centralized control mode, implemented by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications watchdog. This means that Roskomnadzor will receive powers to determine the routing rules for the internet traffic of all Russian service providers. Specifically, it will get to control the distribution and direction of the data flows among networks and to limit data transmissions abroad. The switch will supposedly allow Russia to maintain critical services (e.g. government websites) even after the Runet is cut off from the global web.

It is assumed that all traffic exchanges on Russian soil will take place only through exchange points (login nodes that allow providers to access the global web and to distribute internet bandwidth to end users) listed in a special government registry. The law also envisages the development of a national domain name system (DNS) that will be used in case the Runet is blocked from abroad. 

The law obligates Russian providers to install special equipment provided by Roskomnadzor to transmit all data. This equipment will be able to detect data sources and block those that are not allowed. Moreover, providers will have to participate in regular trainings “to identify threats and develop measures to restore the Runet’s working capacity.”


The Law of Dual Force

According to Andrei Klishas, the law is supposed to help the government provide a secure and uninterrupted internet connection and to protect Russian people’s interests. He estimated that the external disconnection of the Runet could trigger an “economic and social cataclysm,” with daily losses amounting to at least 20 billion rubles ($316 million). Such threats, Klishas claimed, are “absolutely real,” giving as an example Edward Snowden’s information that the NSA cut off Syria’s internet in 2012. An alternative explanation holds that under the pretext of a growing foreign threat, the Kremlin is advancing its own authoritarian interests.

“The stated goal [of the law] is quite closely aligned with Russia’s overall strategic discourse on national security and sovereignty,” explains Dr. Tanya Lokot, Assistant Professor and Program Chair of the MA in Social Media Communications at the School of Communications, Dublin City University. “Defense against ‘foreign foes’ and the image of a ‘victim,’ as [historian] Timothy Snyder posits, is part of the ‘politics of eternity’ that has been shaping the Russian state identity in recent years. But as we see, this discourse is often used by the state to discredit domestic political and social activity. The situation with sovereign internet is similar: rhetorically, it is presented as a defense mechanism against external threats, but in reality its targets will most likely be civic and protest activities and alternative opinions—on the internet and beyond,” elaborates Lokot.

“This law that is supposed to enable the government to manipulate traffic throughout the country or in a separate region clearly seeks to prevent the spread of information that the Kremlin may deem dangerous or damaging,” agrees Andrei Soldatov, Russian journalist and author of The Red Web.

All experts the IMR spoke to regarding the new law warn that it might be used for emergency shutdowns of the internet in certain Russian regions, e.g. in case of political turbulence. The Kremlin has already tried this before. After mass protests erupted in Ingushetia in October 2018, following a revision of the borders between the republic and neighboring Chechnya, cell service providers cut off mobile internet at the request of law enforcement agencies.

Contrary to lawmakers’ opinion, independent experts believe that the Runet’s disconnection from the global web is an unlikely event. “The view exists that it’s all being done to isolate Russia from the external networks. But one has to realize that it is impossible to disconnect Russia from the internet without damaging key services that the state itself uses, say,– for financial transactions,” believes Artyom Kozlyuk, head of Roskomsvoboda, a Russian NGO that supports internet freedom. “We have too many transborder traffic exchanges, so it will be quite hard to install in Putin’s office a red button that would allow him to cut off the internet in Russia. But it is possible to make sure that shutdowns similar to the one in Ingushetia are legitimate and could take place more often in various regions,” adds Kozluyk.

In Kozlyuk’s words, the goals announced in the law’s rationale fail to withstand critical scrutiny: “It has been said hundreds of times: the United States has never cut off any country from the internet and is not going to do so, and it is stupid to use it as an argument for [Russia’s] self-isolation from the global web.”

“It is impossible to implement in technical terms,” confirms Anton Merkurov, internet expert and founder of satoshi.fm, a digital news website. “Moreover, the internet continues to further decentralize naturally, the number of subnetworks is growing and it is impossible to control them. Attempted tests to isolate [the Runet] can lead to critical equipment failures,” he warns.


Who Is Behind the “Sovereign Runet”?

According to the BBC, Klishas, Bokova, and Lugovoy are simply the collective face of the law, while its true ideologue and active lobbyist is Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of the presidential administration. Previously, the idea for a sovereign internet was pushed by the Safe Internet League, a pro-Kremlin organization created by Konstantin Malofeyev (often dubbed in the Western media as the “Orthodox oligarch”) and then-presidential aide Igor Shchegolev in order to promote internet censorship. After the latter’s resignation, the presidential directorate on information technologies that he used to oversee was passed on to Kiriyenko.

“Repressive internet legislation in Russia is developed by either the silovikior the group of politicians responsible for political stability in the country. The law on sovereign internet clear falls into the latter category,” explains Andrei Soldatov.

However, as often happens in the kleptocratic system built by Vladimir Putin, a political initiative usually has financial beneficiaries. Anton Merkurov points that out, saying that the only interest pursued by the real initiators of the law is “money, money, and again money.” “Hardware development, software, integration, construction of data centers (to store data inside Russia), procurement auctions with Huawei—all of these are what the market players will make profit off.” Artem Kozlyuk agrees: “Yes, they will be making big money off this law… Some big state corporation will be selling the government this hardware.” The financial beneficiaries of the sovereign internet law could be revealed once the government announces the tenders for the procurement of “technical meansfor countering threats,” suggest both experts.

As of now, it is logical to assume that, as with another restrictive initiative—the package of reforms known as the “Yarovaya laws”—it will be the average consumers who will pay for the law on “sovereign Runet” (through rate hikes). They will share this burden with small and medium-size providers who will likely be forced to shut down and quit due to mounting additional costs. Critics of the law foresee more side effects: a decline in service quality, network malfunctions, more blocked websites, and a further expansion of government censorship.