Russia’s new “sovereign internet" law gives the government sweeping power over the internet

Russia’s new “sovereign internet" law gives the government sweeping power over the internet
Source: AP

Russia’s amended law on communications, information, information technologies, and information protection came into effect on November 1, allowing greater control over its citizen’s access to online information. Also known as the “sovereign internet" law, it was approved in April this year, despite widespread criticism, protests, and online campaigning in the country.  

According to Radio Free Europe, the legislation was created in response to the US cybersecurity strategy adopted in September 2018. The US said that this strategy aimed to “identify, counter, disrupt, degrade, and deter behavior in cyberspace that is destabilizing and contrary to our national interests while preserving America’s overmatch in and through cyberspace."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the law would ensure the Russian internet is able to function if the United States attempts to cut off Russian access to the global web, Radio Free Europe reported.

What the law covers

The new law gives the Russian government “virtually unlimited ability and authority to continuously monitor all internet activity to identify possible threats," Human Rights Watch explained.

  • Greater control over internet service providers

Russian internet service providers (ISPs) are now required to install deep packet inspection (DPI) tools within the country, which examines and manages network traffic, allowing providers to locate the source of web traffic and reroute and block it accordingly.

According to Human Rights Watch, blocking can range from a single post to an entire network shut down – which means that the Kremlin now has the power to cut Russia off from the World Wide Web. In Moscow and Ingushetia, a southern region that has experienced mass protests, the Russian government has allegedly experimented with turning off mobile internet connections during these protests.

The “sovereign internet"  law can also limit Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), a popular tool to bypass website blocking by filtering individual VPN traffic. Russia already has existing legislation that limits internet anonymity, whereby VPN providers cannot provide unidentified users with access to banned sites and “organizers of information dissemination" – including social media and messaging apps.

Although the law came into effect on November 1, Putin’s internet advisor Dmitry Peskov told the Financial Times that the technology to make this a reality will not be ready until at least 2021. However, Reuters Russia has reported that it is already being tested in several cities in the Ural mountains and Tyumen.

  • Establishment of a national domain name

The law requires ISPs to route Russian web traffic through state-controlled exchange points, effectively creating a national domain system. This will act as an address book of the internet, translating a URL address into a numerical IP address, which can be used to look up the address of the server(s) that hosts a specific website URL. Human Rights Watch says that this power will allow Russian authorities to lead internet users to the wrong internet address or no address at all, potentially manipulating search results and information sources.

  • Switching off the internet in an emergency

The BBC reported that under this system, the Russian government could switch off all internet connections to other countries in an emergency.

However, Human Rights Watch said that “the vague definition of security threats leaves it to the authorities to decide which situation requires tracking, rerouting, or blocking," adding that this law will “open the door to abuse."

International responses and criticism

The BBC said that the law was an attempt to increase censorship and curtails freedom of expression and privacy. The Russian government is now allowed to block content without judicial consent or having to tell internet users about what information is blocked and why.  

“Now the government can directly censor content or even turn Russia’s internet into a closed system without telling the public what they are doing or why," Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Europe and Central Asia director, said in an official statement.

Reporters Without Borders say that “[The law] 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."

The Russian government justified the law by saying that it was needed to prevent US cyberattacks. The BBC quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, saying that Russia has no intention of closing its internet off from the rest of the world. “No one is suggesting cutting the internet."

According to the BBC, Russia has recently approved several laws to restrict freedom of speech. Earlier in 2019, the Russian parliament passed two legislations to outlaw “disrespecting the authorities" and what the government deems “fake news." In 2018, Russia attempted but ultimately failed to block the messaging app Telegram for refusing to provide encryption keys to Russia’s Federal Security Service.  

According to the independent watchdog organization Freedom House, the country’s Freedom of the Net score in 2018 was 67/100, indicating it is “not free."