Explainer: Russia Takes A Big Step Toward The 'Internyet'

Russia's "sovereign Internet" law is in effect -- a measure that is expected to ultimately enable the government to monitor electronic information flows in real time, cut off access to content it deems "dangerous," and isolate the Runet as a defense against foreign cyberattacks. Here's what you need to know about the new measure and Russia's changing Internet environment.

What does the law mean and why was it adopted?

The "sovereign Internet" law mandates the installation of special equipment and tracking software at thousands of key Internet points in Russia that would send data to a central monitoring facility which would have the power and the authority to reroute information deemed by the government to present a threat to the state, as well as to isolate the so-called Runet from the rest of the World Wide Web in the event of a foreign cyberattack.

Implementation of the law will be overseen by the federal communications agency, Roskomnadzor.

The agency will look for "threats to the integrity" of the Russian Internet that endanger connections among users, "threats to the reliability" of the Russian Internet that could undermine the functioning of servers or other equipment, and "threats to security," including attempts to hack provider equipment or conduct "destabilizing external or internal information activities on the Internet."

In theory at least, the new central monitoring facility will be able to analyze Internet traffic flows in real time and block or redirect specific information packets -- a social-media feed or a YouTube video, for example -- through a process called "deep-packet inspection," or DPI.

The authors of the legislation have said it was created in response to what they described as the "aggressive nature" of the U.S. cybersecurity strategy adopted in September 2018. According to a White House statement at the time, the strategy aims to "identify, counter, disrupt, degrade, and deter behavior in cyberspace that is destabilizing and contrary to our national interests, while preserving America's overmatch in and through cyberspace."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the law was needed to ensure the Russian Internet is able to function if the United States attempts to cut off Russian access to the global web.

Many analysts and civil-society activists have said the real intention of the law is to enable the state to squelch political dissent.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Europe and Central Asia Director Rachel Denber has warned that the "law allows for colossal, extrajudicial blocking of speech and information without transparency, proper judicial authorization, or meaningful oversight."

"This law isn't about foreign threats or banning Facebook and Google, which Russia can already do legally," Russian security analyst and author of The Red Web: The Kremlin's War On The Internet Andrei Soldatov told Bloomberg. "It's about being able to cut off certain types of traffic in certain areas during times of civil unrest."

The Russian government already seems to be moving in this direction. During unsanctioned election protests in Moscow on July 27 and August 3, demonstrators and journalists reported difficulties accessing the Internet through their mobile devices. Mikhail Klimaryev, director of the Internet Defense Society, an activist group, told RFE/RL that his monitoring of Internet usage in central Moscow on August 3 "indicates access was cut off" and that his sources had told him the telecommunications provider Vympelkom had restricted access at the request of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The new law could enable the government to continue this practice in a more targeted way without informing Internet providers.

What will now the law has come into effect?

For average Russian Internet users, not much will change immediately. The law itself states that compliance with some of its provisions begins in 2021.

"After the law was passed, it became clear that they also needed to adopt more than 30 normative acts on implementing it," Aleksandr Isavnin, an analyst with the Internet-freedom advocacy group Roskomsvoboda, told RFE/RL. "Some of them have already been adopted but they were quite vaguely written…. Others that were in the process of being drafted were rejected on purely bureaucratic grounds."

"The law will not come into full effect precisely on November 1," he concluded, and many of its effects will depend on the exact wording of the normative acts.

Over the longer term, Russian Internet users can expect higher costs, slower access speeds, and fewer provider options.

Russia, Isavnin noted, has about 8,000 registered Internet service providers (ISPs), some 5,000 of which are active at any given time.

"Of course, this situation doesn't please those in the government who love total control, who love to be in charge," he said. "It is much more difficult to control 5,000 providers than two or three or four – or one, like they have in Syria."

ISPs have warned that compliance with the law will result in higher costs and slower services.

"Russian operators will have to spend much more to secure access to the Internet than other operators do," Isavnin said. "And all this is necessary in order to, in one way or another, limit Russian citizens’ access to information. It isn't just censorship -- it is censorship that Russians themselves must pay for. That's the saddest part."

Government estimates put the ultimate cost of the legislation at between 20 billion and 30 billion rubles ($313 million to $470 million).

Roskomnadzor announced in late September that it would begin conducting a test of the new system in the Urals Federal District over the rest of 2019. Activists and analysts will be monitoring the region to see if there are noticeable reductions in access speeds or Internet reliability.

Is Russia creating something like China's Great Firewall?

In June 2010, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the Silicon Valley headquarters of Twitter, becoming the first head of state to do so. He ceremoniously opened his Twitter account during the trip and made his first official post.

On the same U.S. trip, Medvedev also dropped by Google, Cisco Systems, and Apple. "Russia is trying to become an open country," he said in a speech at Stanford University, which he read off his Apple iPad.

The visit was perhaps a symbolic high-water mark of Russia's ambitions to join the global technological community. In 2009, the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House ranked Russia No. 49 on its first Freedom on the Net index. When Medvedev handed the presidency back over to Putin in 2012, that rating had fallen to No. 52. The downward trajectory has continued every year since, with Russia settling in at No. 67 out of the 100 ranked countries in 2018, two slots below Sudan and just ahead of the United Arab Emirates.

During those years, the Russian government adopted numerous policies that activists say were clearly aimed at restricting Internet freedom. In 2017, Moscow restricted the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs. The same year, it introduced the policy of designating media outlets receiving foreign funding as "foreign agents." The next year, a law was passed requiring social-media platforms to connect user accounts with a telephone number, restricting online anonymity.

The same year, the so-called Yarovaya Law came into force that required telecoms firms to store all user data for up to six months and provide the FSB with unrestricted access to it. The government has also been trying to block the popular messaging app Telegram for more than a year because it has refused to provide its encryption keys to the FSB.

At the same time, the government has prosecuted hundreds of people for online posts and other Internet activity deemed "extremist" or "offensive." Earlier this year, Russia adopted a controversial law imposing fines for using electronic media to express "disrespect" toward officials, society, or state symbols.

Some commentators have expressed the fear that Russia is trying to emulate China's notorious Great Firewall, which has become a formidable -- although not impregnable -- barrier isolating the Chinese Internet from parts of the global Internet that Beijing dislikes.

Roskomsvoboda's Isavnin says this is not possible for several reasons. First, China has a domestic market that is large enough to produce and consume Internet products independently. It has already developed relatively popular and successful Chinese analogs to Google, Facebook, and other popular global sites.

In addition, Beijing has controlled the development of the Internet in China since the beginning, whereas in Russia the Internet developed largely according to free-market principles for many years before the government focused its attention on it.

As a result, China has placed controls "between China and not China," Isavnin said.

"The Russian law on the sovereign Internet and the blocking that will happen will work within the country, including between ISPs," he added. "The Chinese government limits the access of its citizens to foreign information but it does not interfere with what happens inside the country. They are not destroying the infrastructure or the market inside the country."

A more appropriate comparison for Russia is with Iran, Isavnin added.

"Telegram is blocked in Iran a bit more effectively than in Russia, but it is still being used," he said. "Twitter is blocked in Iran and it is hard to use VPNs, but Twitter is still actively used there. Iran is a sort of goal toward which our government, maybe, aspires. But as we see from recent experience, it hasn't been completely successful in that regard."

Will the new law mark the end of Internet freedom In Russia?

Everything depends on how the law is implemented and how persistent the government will be, Isavnin said.

He added that two major factors are working against the government's efforts to assert control over access to information: corruption and the complexity of the Internet itself.

"Our greatest hope is on corruption," he told RFE/RL, saying it is possible "that the law will be used to steal the money allocated for the equipment and the creation of the new Internet-control facility but in reality nothing will work…. We hope they will squander the money and calm down."

In addition, the failure of the government's past efforts to restrict the Internet, Isavnin said, demonstrates a poor understanding of how the Internet works.

"The American military researchers [who created the Internet beginning in the 1960s] designed it so that it would survive and continue working in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack," he said. "Thank God, that never happened. But the DNA that was built into the system now could enable the Internet in Russia to survive in the event of 'nuclear attacks' from Roskomnadzor."

"The closure of the Russian Internet will only happen when it is fully closed," Isavnin added. "They will have to ban it entirely, but they won't be able to do that. They brag now about various state services that are already difficult to access without going through the Internet. Our bureaucrats are using it. The government would hardly decide to shut it down completely."

With reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Valentin Baryshnikov, Alina Pinchuk, Ilya Rozhdestvensky, and Ostap Karmodi