Extreme Internet censorship is becoming legal in Russia – even if many technical questions are left unanswered. A law coming into force on 1 November enables the authorities to disconnect Russia’s Internet users from the global network. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns this law as a dangerous step towards comprehensive control and monitoring of digital communications.
"This law is an attempt to take Internet censorship in Russia to a new level", said Christian Mihr, executive director of RSF Germany. "It proves that the Russian leadership is ready to bring the entire network infrastructure under political control in order to cut off the digital information flow whenever needed. Even if the new regulations may not be fully enforceable, they show how extensively Internet freedom is threatened in Russia."
President Vladimir Putin signed the "Law on the Sovereign Internet" on 1 May. Its official purpose is to ensure the smooth functioning of the Russian network independently of the global Internet in the event of a crisis or external attack. To this end, the law creates the conditions for the Russian authorities to isolate Russia from parts of the Internet. In the future, the authorities could potentially shut down access throughout Russia to certain Internet providers, for example, or to all international data traffic or even to data traffic within Russia.
One of the most important consequences of the law is that it centralizes the control and filtering of data traffic: In future, it will no longer be the Internet providers who will be responsible for this, but the intelligence services and media supervisory authorities. In this way, the government hopes to be able to block prohibited content and platforms more effectively than before.
Providers need to install devices that allow supervisory access
Specifically, the law requires Internet providers to route Russian data traffic only through nodes approved by the Roskomnadzor media authority that do not allow connections to unauthorized Internet providers. All Russian providers and other service providers must install technology that allows Roskomnadzor to block data traffic if necessary.
However, most Internet service providers do not yet have this technology. According to the news portal RBC, it will initially be tested in the Urals administrative region by the end of the year. Since late October, the "big four" telecommunications companies – Rostelecom, MTS, Megafon and Vimpelcom – as well as several smaller providers have been installing the required devices and testing them at intervals. The tests initially only concern fixed-network connections and exclude mobile Internet.
Roskomnadzor is to monitor data traffic for threats to Russia's Internet access and closely control cross-border data traffic. The law leaves many technical questions unanswered. It makes it clear, however, that the government can give instructions to Internet providers directly and without judicial control and that the public is not informed about what content is being blocked or for what reasons.
According to the text of the law, these measures are to be applied in the event of an undefined "security threat". It is entirely up to the government to decide what is considered a threat and how to respond to it.
In addition, the law provides for the creation of an independent Russian Domain Name System (DNS) – a sort of Internet address book that determines the IP address to which a user is directed when entering an address. From January 2021 onwards, Internet providers will be obliged to use this national DNS. This would enable the state to manipulate requests from Russian Internet users at will, to let them run into a void, or direct them to fake websites.
Law violates human rights standards
With these very broad, vaguely defined powers for very far-reaching, non-transparent and unmonitored government interference, the law violates the standards on freedom of expression and protection of privacy that derive from Russia's European and international human rights obligations. It threatens freedom of expression and freedom of the media on the Internet as well as online anonymity, and creates new possibilities for monitoring the Internet.
It is unclear whether the plans can be implemented technically at all. Providers fear massive Internet traffic disruptions and the Court of Audit has criticized the project’s enormous costs. The Russian business association warned that Russia could not easily be separated from the most important foreign servers through which large parts of the business transactions of Russian corporations pass.
Russia is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.