Russia reportedly seeks tighter control over the internet

Roskomnadzor is Russia's Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications. [frantic00/Shutterstock]

Russia appears to be preparing measures to tighten control over the internet, under the guise of seeking to be more resilient against cyberattacks, according to an internal document circulated on social media and comments by Russian officials.

The document lays the ground for the state management of the internet infrastructure. It requires switching by 11 March to Domain Name Systems (DNS) located on the Russian Federation territory, moving public resources placed on foreign hosting to Russian ones, and moving public resources under the Russian domain zone .ru.

The government telegram was signed by Andrei Chernenko, deputy minister for digital development, and was reported by several media outlets. The initiative follows similar attempts to nationalise the control of the internet.

“The telegram for government agencies outlines a set of simple cyber hygiene recommendations that will help to organise work more effectively to protect our resources from malicious traffic, keep services running and control over domain names,” a Russian ministry spokesperson told the Russian outlet Kommersant.

In other words, Moscow presents the measures as a means to defend itself better from cyberattacks, which escalated during the conflict in Ukraine.

“The cybersecurity reason is always used as an excuse to take over more control,” said Konstantinos Komaitis, an internet policy expert.

Shortly after Russia launched its invasion on 24 February, the Ukrainian government announced the creation of an IT army to “continue to fight on the cyber front,” the Ukrainian minister of digital transformation Mykhailo Fedorov announced on 26 February.

Several hacker collectives also took sides against Russia in the conflict and attacked Russian infrastructure, including official government websites. For instance, Anonymous has brought down the website of the ministry of defence.

China, Russia prepare new push for state-controlled internet

Officials and stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic expect China to put forward a renewed proposal for a centralised version of internet governance this week, which will probably take the discussion into political rather than technological territory.

Paradoxically, creating a single point of control might create a vulnerability in the otherwise decentralised internet architecture, as it would become the primary target for cyber-attacks.

However, a Russian DNS could solve this vulnerability, but this solution requires identifying the tens of thousands of different access points to the global internet and reconfiguring them.

Russia is not a stranger to such attempts. In 2019, Moscow ran a test to disconnect from the global internet and introduced a new sovereign internet law to tighten its control over Russia’s internet infrastructure.

Therefore, some observers interpreted the move as a final attempt to self-isolate from the worldwide web. However, it is still unclear whether Russia would have the actual capacity to switch off.

“It is really not an easy task to disconnect yourself from the internet,” Komaitis added. “Russia’s internet has much more interdependencies than what we see in China and Iran.”

While the moment might be a particularly favourable one since most Western tech companies have suspended their operations in Russia over the invasion, developing such capacity does not happen overnight. China, for example, dedicated thousands of IT experts for years to building its Great Firewall.

Russia’s objective might be to protect itself from foreign influence by giving Roskomnadzor, the Russian regulator, the capacity to control what websites can be accessed or not and ensure none else can cut off the internet in Russia.

Last week, the Ukrainian government asked the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body that is responsible for managing the internet’s domain name system, to cut off Russian domain names and DNS root servers.

In the past years, Russia has accused ICANN of being a US-dominated organisation, as it was under the direct control of the US department of commerce until 2017. Still, the technical body refused to take a political stance and did not act upon Ukraine’s request.

“The question is who is in control,” Komaitis stressed. “They’re sending a message: We do not depend on anyone, we are self-sufficient. Whether that is the case or not, I don’t think that anybody can say for certain right now.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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