Russian teenagers at an Internet cafe in Novosibirsk, East Siberia. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)
Berlin (CNSNews.com) – In a move that is raising concerns about censorship and political manipulation, Russia is preparing to disconnect its Internet from the world wide web as part of a test run following the backing of a draft law to “sovereignize” its Internet.
Citing cybersecurity risks, Russian lawmakers backed a draft bill (in Russian) on Tuesday that aims to make the Russian Internet capable of operating in isolation from the rest of the world. The “Digital Economy of the Russian Federation” bill would require any Internet traffic going in and out of Russia to funnel through registered exchange points monitored by the state communications regulator, Roskomnadzor.
Russia’s RBK Daily newspaper reported that a “test,” in which all links to Russia from the Internet will be temporarily cut off, is to take place on an as-yet unspecified date before April 1.
Explanatory notes in the draft law say the measure as needed to protect Russia in the event of a cybersecurity attack, and cited the “aggressive nature” of the U.S. cyber security strategy, adopted in September 2018. Bill drafters complained that the U.S. strategy, without proof, accused Russia of responsibility for hacker attacks.
Despite the move ostensibly being about security, critics worry that it foreshadows censorship and government control over sensitive topics.
Damir Gainutdinov, a legal analyst at the human rights organization AGORA International, said there was no doubt that Internet control measures are, at the core, political tools.
“Since 2012, hundreds of thousands of Internet resources have been blocked in the country, including popular independent media (Grani.Ru, Kasparov.Ru), social networks (LinkedIn) and instant messaging services (BM, Imo, Line, Zello, Telegram),” he said.
Gainutdinov said more than 150 people were imprisoned for actions relating to publishing and reposting on social networks.
“The authorities, under the threat of blocking, require the media to edit publications that the prosecutor’s office, the police or the Roskomnadzor do not like, and prohibit coverage of protests as well as anti-corruption investigations,” he said.
Economist and political scientist Ryan McMaken, communications director at the U.S.-based Mises Institute, said that while controls may be designed for national security, they were nevertheless a cause for skepticism.
“It’s impossible to know if fears are overblown until any action is taken by the Russian state, but it seems clear the proposed policy would make it easier for the Russian state to engage in censorship if it wishes,” he said.
“Anything that controls the flow of goods, services, or information can be used as a political tool,” McMaken said, adding that controlling the flow of information across a country’s borders could be used in a way similar to tariffs or immigration controls.
“The state’s regulatory powers can be used to reward certain groups – presumably political allies –at the expense of other groups,” he said.
An earlier attempt by Russia to isolate its Internet failed in 2014, as it was unable to stop information flowing out of the country via hundreds of independent smaller Internet service providers.
It is unclear exactly how it plans to overcome that this time around.
The Russian government has also been accused of blocking political opponents online, for example when a Moscow court ordered the website of Alexei Navalny, a prominent Kremlin critic, to be blocked late last year.
Increased cybersecurity has been an increasingly hot topic among Western governments in recent years. Aside from the U.S. cyber strategy, the E.U. also agreed on a new cyber security measure last December which aims to facilitate coordination among member states in combating “cyber attacks.”
Last Monday, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said in London that the U.K. will be increasing defense budget spending on “offensive cyber capabilities.”