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Why Is Russia Turning Off Its Internet?

Russia

China might have recently overtaken Russia as the biggest sponsor of state cyberattacks on the West, but an ongoing  tug-of-war between the Russia and NATO over the Black Sea has only encouraged the intergovernmental military alliance to step up cyberattack-related sanctions against Russia.

And now Russia is hitting back--by threatening to completely shut down its cyberspace to the rest of the world.

Russia plans to disconnect the country from the global internet—albeit temporarily—to simulate an all-out cyberwar, with the trial run scheduled to take place before April 1 though a specific date has not been set. The jury is out whether this move is merely a foreboding of more drastic measures to come.

Digital independence

The shutdown is ostensibly a test by the Kremlin to check how well an internet-independent Russia would cope if it was cut off by other nations. This might sound like a case of smoke and mirrors, yet it remains a real possibility for the nation of 145 million souls. Under the test, Russian ISPs (Internet Service Providers) will have to redirect web traffic originating from the country to specific routing points approved and managed by the Russian government’s internet watchdog, Roskomnazor, as per ZDNet.

Like most countries today, Russia relies on global systems to connect with servers from anywhere in the world. There are no reports yet regarding how long the planned outage will take.

Regardless, the country plans to rely on its own version of the domain-name system, a directory of web addresses and domains. The latest experiment is part of the country’s Digital Economy National Program, a draft law crafted last year that aims to protect its digital infrastructure in the event of other countries cutting it off.

In effect, the Kremlin, for better or worse, wants to wean the country off foreign ISPs and keep the country as digitally independent as is practically possible mostly in a bid to protect it against potential cyberattacks.

Taking the China route

This is, however, hardly a knee-jerk reaction as you would probably suspect. As early back as 2017, the country’s Ministry of Communications said that it wanted to route 95 percent of the country’s traffic domestically by 2020 according to the local Izvestia newspaper. Related: The Key Reasons Gold Could Be Poised For A Breakout

While this might at first come across as an innocuous, perhaps even magnanimous, move by a government that truly cares about its citizens’ welfare, the reality could be far more pernicious. By having all web traffic pass through government-monitored routing points, Moscow could easily set up a massive web censorship system akin to China’s. China’s internet censorship system, aka the Great Firewall.

Censorship in China’s digital space has soared under president  Xi Jinping and effectively functions as Beijing’s tool to target both local and international dissidents. Every year, the government issues thousands of directives, yet the number has increased considerably since the new government took over as have the number of restrictive laws that target false information or anything that is deemed to endanger the “honor of the state”. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a seemingly innocent post on a social network like Weibo resulting in phone calls from the country’s police asking you to take it down.

Group chats are frequently the target of state monitoring with group initiators being held personally liable for anything that members say. Problem is, the country’s online rules remain incredibly vague, and those deemed as stepping over the line are mostly left to the mercy of police judgment.

For a reality check, Moscow needs a reminder that the internet is a global phenomenon that’s much harder to turn on or off at the flick of a switch. Sure, the Democratic Republic of Congo seemingly did manage the feat during its heated presidential elections. Russia is, however, much bigger than DRC not to mention the country’s infrastructure that’s orders of magnitude more sophisticated. In the tangled world wide web, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a country’s ISPs to know how much they rely on foreign infrastructure.

Internet systems have in-built redundancy that is designed to prevent accidental shutoffs. The extent to which Russia is able to isolate Runet might ultimately be an inverse measure of how well the entire system has been designed.

By Alex Kimani for Safehaven.com

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