Kremlin to discuss taking control of the .ru domain and measures to disconnect Russians from the web in the event of unrest
The Kremlin is considering radical plans to unplug Russia from the global internet in the event of a serious military confrontation or big anti-government protests at home, Russian officials hinted on Friday.
President Vladimir Putin will convene a meeting of his security council on Monday. It will discuss what steps Moscow might take to disconnect Russian citizens from the web “in an emergency”, the Vedomosti newspaper reported. The goal would be to strengthen Russia’s sovereignty in cyberspace. The proposals could also bring the domain .ru under state control, it suggested.
Russian TV and most of the country’s newspapers are under the Kremlin’s thumb. But unlike in China, the Russian internet has so far remained a comparatively open place for discussion, albeit one contested by state-sponsored bloggers and Putin fans.
The move comes at a time when Russia has been bitterly critical of the western media, which Moscow says has adopted a biased attitude towards events in Ukraine. Russian channels have portrayed the conflict in Ukraine as a heroic fight against “fascists” in Kiev. They have disputed western reports that Russian soldiers and heavy weapons are involved. A BBC team that went to investigate reports of Russian servicemen killed in Ukraine was beaten up this week.
According to Vedomosti, Russia plans to introduce the new measures early next year. The Kremlin has been wrestling for some time with how to reduce Russia’s dependency on American technology and digital infrastructure, amid fears that its communications are vulnerable to US spying. It has mooted building a “national internet”, which would in effect be a domestic intranet. These proposals go further, expanding the government’s control over ordinary Russian internet users and their digital habits.
Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s spy agencies, described the plans as big news. In an email from Moscow he said he “didn’t actually believe” Russian officials would disconnect the internet. But he said the moves were a “real step forward in the development of a besieged fortress mentality”.
He wrote: “Before, such ideas were mostly to do with so-called government communications (how to make them independent from western technologies). Now they want to expand this crazy idea to the entire internet of the country.”
Soldatov said it would be technically possible for Moscow to shut off the internet because Russia has “surprisingly few” international exchange points. All of them are under the control of national long-distance operations, like Rostelecom, which are close to the authorities, he said.
The most ominous element, he added, was the security council’s apparent proposal to take control over .ru, as well as the domains .su (for Soviet Union) and .рф (Russian Federation in Cyrillic). These domains currently belong to a non-government organisation, the coordination centre of the national domain, rather than to government. Many are currently hosted abroad.
“The thing might be approved very quickly, and this means it shows a way to the next step – to force all domains in the .ru zone to be hosted in Russia,” Soldatov said. Kazakhstan, an authoritarian state intolerant of online criticism, did something similar two years ago, he said, adding that such a move would affect his own website Agentura.ru, which is hosted in Germany.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed the meeting would take place on Monday, adding that much of it was likely to be in closed session. The communications ministry declined to comment on Friday.
While Putin enjoys popular support, with his approval ratings boosted by Russia’s takeover of Crimea from Ukraine in March, the danger of mass unrest is not lost on the Kremlin. In 2011-2012 tens of thousands of Russians protested in Moscow after Putin announced he was returning as president and shoving aside his temporary successor Dmitry Medvedev. The protests fizzled out following a series of arrests, harassment of opposition figures, and high-profile trials.
The Russian economy, which is already teetering on the verge of recession, is reeling from ever more stringent Western sanctions over Moscow’s alleged support for separatists in eastern-Ukraine. Washington and Brussels have introduced several rounds of sanctions that are the toughest punitive measures since the cold war.
An employee of a large communications provider told Vedomosti Moscow did not want to unplug the world wide web but to protect Russian cyberspace in case of further western sanctions that may affect the internet.