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A ‘sovereign internet’? Why Russia has “successfully” isolated its network from the rest

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGOs in the country and helps poor children to get a basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

The Government of Vladimir Putin has just made public the result of its “disconnection” test of the global network, a movement that can mark the future of communications

The war for internet control continues. Since this global communications network began to spread like a virus all over the planet, actors of various kinds and conditions have struggled to take over an invention that by its very nature is very difficult to catch. In the general imagination, trying to walk the internet was little more than trying to put doors to the field. But as the years’ progress, the barriers begin to work and the last example is Russia which, according to its own Government, has managed to “successfully” prove its ‘sovereign internet’.

Vladimir Putin’s executive has just released the result of their latest test on the internet. Since the end of November, this country has been testing a “real” disconnection from its territory of global internet servers with the aim of checking if the Eurasian giant could survive only connected to its own network in the face of any problem. And, as confirmed by its rulers this morning, the test has been a success. How did you get it? Well, building the largest ‘intranet’ on the planet.

As expected, there are not many details about how this experiment was conducted or how long it lasted or how it was done exactly, but we do know that the goal of it was to test RuNet, Russia’s internal communications network designed to to be isolated from any attack or need in the country. Or so at least their rulers justify the existence of this emergency network because, for their part, the most critical say that the only objective is to have real control over this communication channel and that the Russian media control agency, the Roskomnadzor, can handle at will.

Only a few months ago Vladimir Putin himself said that his goal at this time was not to isolate himself from the network or cut his connection with the outside permanently but both this last test and the coordinated movement that accompanies this experiment (laws, threats of sanctions, investments) leave many doubts in the air. Can a country disconnect from the internet? Can other states copy you and forever change the idea of ​​the network? A lot of information is still missing but, according to some analysts, Russia could move towards an Internet-style like China and its famous ‘firewall’ or Great Digital Wall.

Sovereignty, or network censorship?

You cannot understand anything about these tests without a controversial law passed in November: the law of “internet disconnection”. Obviously this law was written ‘ad hoc’ to get these experiments done, but there is much more. Far from being a simple norm for exceptional occasions, according to experts, it seeks to turn around the control of the network and set up a whole system that allows the State to handle everything that happens in the network from end to end and be able to monitor it.

As explained by the media agencies, the law requires that all local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) carry traffic through special servers managed by the Roskomnadzor. These servers would act as disconnect switches and disconnect Russia from external connections while redirecting Internet traffic within Russia’s own internet space, similar to an intranet across the country, which the government calls RuNet. That switch is what would allow Russia to isolate itself in the event of an attack or security problem, but many experts see that point as an excuse to mount a large ‘firewall’.

According to Human Right Watch, the real purpose of the law is to create a legal basis to force ISPs to install inspection and mass surveillance equipment on their networks and lead them to redirect all Internet traffic through the Roskomnadzor critical points, as if these were a kind of customs or control offices. These Roskomnadzor servers are where Russian authorities can intercept and filter traffic at their discretion and without judicial supervision, an operation similar to the Great Firewall of China.

And this is not the only measure in this regard. In addition to the law and the investment to create RuNet, different measures have also been put in place against external services used by Russians and protectionist technology policies. A few weeks ago the country passed a law that requires all mobile manufacturers to mount Russian software to market their products in their country and on December 24 they threatened various social networks with serious penalties if they do not carry the data of Russians to servers located in their territory. A series of movements that demonstrate that the “sovereign internet” plan goes much further than mere experiments.

An experiment to repeat?

As to whether this could be done in other countries, the answer given by experts is yes, it could be done theoretically, but many of them see it as something too complex and almost idealistic, not to say that they would have to change numerous regulations skipping freedom of information and communication. Moreover, the fact that Russia has not given details of its successful experiment leaves certain doubts about its operability and causes many to not buy their disconnection speech and stay more with the idea of ​​a copy of the Chinese model.

At the moment the ‘Great Firewall’ or the ‘Great Digital Wall’ in China is the closest thing to a disconnection from the network that is currently known, but it is not total isolation. What the Asian State does is to control connections, censor platforms and monitor everything that moves through its network through a funnel of servers dominated by the State. If that is Russia’s ultimate goal, or not, we will see it later.

What is quite clear is that this movement is one more, and quite important, within the change in the perception of the network. The war for infrastructure and connections is becoming more palpable throughout the planet and begins to affect the majority of users.

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