But can the authorities go further? No network shutdowns have been reported in the country, as may be the case in Iran, according to Internet monitoring organization NetBlocks. Several witnesses present in Russia testified to the difficulties of connecting to various sites, including Twitter, from certain operators such as MTS or Rostelecom. “There have been attempts in the past to block secure messages, Telegram or block access to Twitter before the war,” adds researcher Louis Pétiniaud, a member of the Geode Institute. “But these blockades have never worked across the country,” he insists. And this despite the many attempts to restrict online freedoms.
Several hundred access providers
There is a good reason for this. Inherited from the post-Soviet era, Russia has one of the most complex networks in the world. “The country has several hundred access providers,” explains Louis Pétiniaud. “In the regions, a small operator may be required to manage the network for a few thousand inhabitants, he continues, leading to a proliferation of actors independent of each other.” A highly liberalized market, where more than 6,575 autonomous systems coexist so far, according to a report commissioned by the Russian Court of Auditors in 2015.
Apart from a few domestic operators, such as Rostelecom, the large number of ISPs that provide Internet connection in Russia does not allow the Kremlin to exercise full control over the Internet. The Duma, the lower house of parliament, has passed several laws to correct this situation and strengthen state control in this area. From February 2019, a project called RuNet should allow the country to assert its control over the entire network. And finally, disconnect the Russian internet from the rest of the world.
A promise reaffirmed in February 2021 by the country’s former president Dimitry Medvedev. Thus other measures have been enacted by this law. Russian telecommunications police may now force private operators to install “control boxes to inspect traffic passing through their routers,” adds Louis Petiniaud. “But several operators have been reluctant to install these boxes,” he added.
In addition, companies that process personal data are now required to host their data on Russian territory. And it may be required to store this data for sharing with the relevant services in case of an investigation under the Yarovaya law. “Russian law cannot and should not be replaced in the country’s territory by the rules of Internet companies,” RoskomNadzor said in a statement issued in 2020.
Disconnect from the Internet?
The argument of an Internet under American influence hovers like a shadow over these laws. Even more so at the moment, when several American technology giants are showing their support for Ukraine. On March 2, Apple suspended the sale of its products in the country. RT and Sputnik media apps have been removed from their App Store, but also from Google Play. For its part, Google claims to have eliminated the sale of advertising to Russian advertisers and media. “We are suspending the possibility of state-funded Russian media monetizing their activities on our platforms,” a spokesman for him said on February 27.
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“Russia has been denouncing a system blocked by the Americans for years,” said Pierre Bonis, director of the French Association for the Designation of the Internet in Cooperation (Afnic). Moscow is particularly wary of US-based institutions that organize Internet routing. To prevent the use of US servers, Russia claims to have established its own Domain Name System (DNS). A tool that would allow you to direct Russian Internet users to places hosted exclusively in the country. And therefore “cut” the rest of the internet.
The Kremlin says it has already conducted several disconnection tests, including two experiments in June and July 2021. But no observer has ever been able to confirm these attempts. “If it were possible, it would have been a long time since the worst autocrats would have done it,” said Pierre Bonis. “DNS is not a complicated technology to implement. What is complicated would be to make it work in Russia,” he admits.
In the midst of the conflict with Ukraine, the risk of not being able to offer more certain computer services could deter Russia from taking action. The country has, of course, several Western-like platforms in all respects, such as the social network VKontakte (VK) for Facebook, or Mail.ru, for messaging and search services. But the main US platforms, YouTube and WhatsApp, are still the most used applications by Internet users in Russia, according to a study by the eMarketer institute.
That’s not all. While the “Russian Google”, Yandex, announced its fear of defaulting on its debts soon, on Thursday, the prospect of cutting the Internet has moved a little further. The capitalization of the group, owned by Arkadi Voloj, fell from $ 30 billion in November to $ 6.7 billion on the stock market last Wednesday. It is difficult, in such a context, to foresee that the country can be completely disconnected from the Internet. At least not tomorrow.