digital gulag: why russia is experimenting with building its own internet

Threatened by the open, permissive architecture of the internet, Russia is doing a dry run at building its own. If it succeeds, the effects on the global economy and geopolitics would be far-reaching and unsettling.

st. petersburg russia

Back in the heady days of the 00s, tech luminaries preached of a world in which the internet would bring people together and give the oppressed a tool to battle tyrants and kleptocrats with the cleansing power of knowledge and transparency, cheering the Arab Spring as proof of their foresight. Unfortunately, the utopians forgot about the fact that not every human interaction ends well and our internet freedom is more of a function of laxity than design. So, as tech evangelists were celebrating, the very authoritarians they sought to make obsolete were watching, seething, and planning, and in the past three years, when the world seemed to have decided that no, we can’t have nice things, they’ve been putting their plans to both muzzle and weaponize the web in action, with Russia and China leading the way.

While most global headlines have been dominated by China’s Black Mirror-style social credit system and Russian hacking, one interesting experiment that gets occasionally mentioned before being glossed over is the Kremlin’s test runs of an internet managed exclusively with Russian routers, all traffic directed through Russian servers, and all data stored in Russian data centers. It’s a concept somewhat similar to the North Korean country-wide intranet, but much more sophisticated since Russia’s digital infrastructure is far more advanced and requires access to the Domain Name Service, or DNS functionality, which turns the addresses you type in your browser into directions to a website. Requiring the DNS does complicate the Kremlin’s plans, but they’ve found a way around it.

how and why do you build your own internet?

Countless links to and from Russian websites were built relying on DNS working reliably no matter where the servers they’re trying to access are. But the hitch is that the global DNS used by virtually everyone in the world is ran by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers based in Los Angeles. According to Russian lawmakers and bureaucrats, this means that the United States could impose sanctions that can cripple Russia’s internet, and following the standard operating procedure of a paranoid, ossified authoritarian regime which backed itself into a corner, they’re going to make their own internet. (Both blackjack and hookers seem unlikely considering the country’s very conservative social attitudes.) Their solution? To redirect all internet traffic in the country to servers in its territory by law and routing protocols.

This offers the Kremlin several advantages. First, it allows the Russian equivalent of the FCC, Roskomnadzor, to effectively censor or shut down the nation’s internet, a power they wanted for years. Secondly, it gives Russian spies the ability to seize or install spyware on servers with information they find interesting. Investigative journalists and foreign workers long scapegoated by the Kremlin as rabble-rousers conspiring with the West to undermine Russia, could no longer store their data safely on encrypted servers which Russian intelligence services would have a very difficult time accessing. Instead, they could just walk into the right data centers after tracing where the data went, and bug the servers accordingly. Third, and finally, it allows Russia to stop incoming cyberattacks in retaliation for their shenanigans abroad by simply denying any outside traffic access to its networks.

Incidentally, there have been similar ideas percolating in the United States, a kind of internet shut-off switch, primarily to prevent attacks against the country’s infrastructure. Considering that the very kind of attack this internet kill switch would aim to prevent would come from viruses buried deep inside the networks of power plants, banks, and other critical control systems, often infected thanks to widespread complacency, this wouldn’t work, but the mechanism would be pretty much identical to what Russia is currently enacting. It should be mentioned that Russian spokespeople insist that under no circumstances would the country want to disconnect from the worldwide internet except to “protect itself” and establish “digital sovereignty” in the process.

what’s going to happen to the internet?

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about Russia’s plans isn’t the even the idea itself but what it represents. Intentionally or not, the Kremlin is developing a playbook to fracture and balkanize the world wide web into fiefdoms reflecting local geopolitics and allowing governments to censor information they don’t like in favor of their own propaganda. It would be a giant step backwards for civil society, especially because it would render virtual private networks, or VPNs, tunnels around restrictive routers and servers, nearly useless. It would be a disaster for journalists and businesses as well, as they will be forced to subject themselves to obvious surveillance or face dire legal consequences.

Companies could find themselves easy marks for economic espionage and wholesale theft of trade secrets because all the data they have to use in their work must be kept on servers easily accessible to foreign spy agencies. Previously open and lucrative markets would now be places to steer clear of, making major dents in those nations’ economies, and slowing international trade. Meanwhile, journalists would now face even more risks in investigating stories involving government corruption or overreach at every level as they’ll have problems getting their stories out without being discovered and stopped either through the misuse of the law, or with violence to which the state turns a blind eye, a long-standing tradition in Russia.

Once again, authoritarian nations could keep their citizens trapped and sedated with fake news virtually unchallenged, and simply recycle their Cold War plans, effectively turning back time to repeat their historical mistakes while hoping for a different outcome. And it’s rather telling how often the word “sovereignty” is used so much in these discussions — a word that used to mean the right to self-govern but is now just an Eric Cartman-esque cry to “respect their authoratay!” as they do what they want — because it really gives away the whole game. Fracturing the web has nothing to do with security. It’s just a means of control. Increasingly isolated thanks to its own actions and decisions, the Kremlin is betting that it’s best shot at keeping its kleptocratic kakistocracy afloat is to hijack the web, and is now testing its hunch.

# tech // cybersecurity / geopolitics / internet / russia


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