Zoning the Internet

The Russian government approved a bill in April that would give the state communications regulator Roskomnadzor the ability to control traffic on the Internet – giving it the potential to effectively isolating the Russian network. The bill has been approved by the Russian president Vladimir Putin.

From 1 November, internet service providers and other communications services in Russia will need to filter all traffic through special hardware controlled by the regulator. That will increase Roskomnadzor’s ability to block and censor content.

In addition, Russia has also created a separate address system for internet traffic – a sovereign version of the global DNS standard that routes all data to the right place worldwide. If international companies are forced to store the data of Russian citizens on servers located in the country, the state could replace the global address system with one that only works locally.

Traffic jam

“If Russia succeeds in its ultimate plans for a national DNS, there wouldn’t be any need for filtering out international information. Russian internet traffic would just never need to leave the country,’ Robert Morgus, a senior cybersecurity analyst at the New America think tank told the BBC. “That means that the only stuff that Russians – or anyone – would be able to access from inside Russia is information that’s hosted inside Russia, on servers physically in the country.”

The ability to access information, goods and services from outside of the country would disappear if the government decided to activate the system.

The bill’s goal is to “ensure a stable, secure and seamless” internet, according to its authors. Supporters say that it represents an important step on the road to creating an independent internet.

Others are less happy. Activists complain that it will increase the regulator’s control over the internet in a way that hinders free speech. The New York Timeshas written the move could be a response to previous efforts to close down independent news and communications outlets.

For example, last year, Roskomnadzor attempted to block a popular encrypted messaging app after the owner refused state requests for the encryption keys underlying the service. But the regulator’s efforts to block entire sections of the web created havoc as popular online stores became temporarily unavailable.

Digital Silk Road

In geopolitical terms, it brings Russia closer to a Chinese model for state censorship of the internet – often known as the Great Firewall of China. The Chinese government stringently controls the terms under which US companies such as Google and Apple can operate in the country. For example, in 2017, it began shutting down private communications apps – called virtual private networks – that enable users to browse the internet anonymously.

But Chinese ambitions are not confined to internal censorship. In 2017, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced that big data would be integrated into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to create the “digital Silk Road of the C21st”. BRI is an attempt to build a global road and marine infrastructure to serve China’s future trade interests.

Chinese digital infrastructure is offering an alternative way for developing countries to get online without aligning themselves with US technologies giants. China’s lead in building next-generation 5G mobile networks has enabled companies such as Huawei to install modern communications infrastructure in Zambia at relatively low cost, according to the broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

As more countries adopt the BRI approach, it is feasible that they could one day form part of a separate internet network that runs parallel to the worldwide web.




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