Russian twitter users noticed something strange when they tried to access the service on March 4: they couldn’t. For the previous six days, anyone who tried to access Twitter from Russia saw their internet speed plummet, no matter how fast their connection was. Then came the blackout.
The Twitter shutdown showed how seriously the Russian state has taken the role of social media in fueling dissent over the country’s invasion of Ukraine. And it showed Russia’s progress in creating a “splinternet” – a move that would effectively separate the country from the rest of the world’s Internet infrastructure. Such a move would allow Russia to more tightly control conversations and crack down on dissent – and it’s getting closer every day.
The gold standard for digital walled gardens is China, which has managed to separate itself from the rest of the digital world with great success, although people are still finding a way around the Great Firewall. “I think they will strive to [mimic China]”, says Doug Madori of Kentik, an Internet monitoring company based in San Francisco, about Russia. “But it wasn’t easy for the Chinese.” China commissioned a huge number of technical experts to create their own version of the Internet and spent a lot of money. By 2001, according to the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development, China spent $20 billion on censored telecommunications equipment each year. The famous Great Firewall is exactly what you need: a firewall that checks every bit of traffic entering Chinese cyberspace and blacklists it. Most Internet traffic to China passes through three bottlenecks that block any inappropriate content. Madori believes that copying the Chinese approach in Russia may be beyond the reach of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I don’t think Russia has put so much energy into engineering resources to replicate that,” Madori says. “There are quite a few countries that would like to have what China has, but they just can’t. They don’t have the people to do it. There are paths to be taken before Russia becomes like China.”
Even if there were people in Russia, putting barriers into the relatively open Internet infrastructure built up over decades is far from easy. Controlling the Internet in a country requires two main components: separating itself from the rest of the world and restricting access from within. “There are a lot of things going on on both sides of the ledger,” Madori says. But both are harder for Russia than for China, because it starts with a relatively open internet after years of cooperation with the West. (China, by contrast, has been shut down almost since the first people entered the Internet, following a February 1996 decree giving the state absolute control over its design and banning “incitement to overthrow the government or the socialist system” – meaning, that it was insular in design.)
Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor can legally require Russian internet service providers (ISPs) to block content or not honor traffic requests. They can redirect Internet traffic from sites that Roskomnadzor considers inappropriate for ordinary Russians, effectively shutting off any individual browser from the rest of the world. However, in Russia there more than 3000 Internet providers, which implement dictates at different speeds. “Everyone is left to their own devices to figure out how to comply with a government order to block the BBC or something like that,” says Madori. Each ISP also uses different methods try to block access to websites that Russia’s media regulator says are banned, with mixed success. “Depending on the method they use, bypassing the block can be easier or harder,” says Maria Xinou of the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a nonprofit internet censorship organization.
More often than not, Russian ISPs drop users’ connections when they try to access websites, leaving them trapped in failed requests. It does this by effectively intercepting the web browser’s request to access the website. “By resetting your connection, they prevent you from connecting to the intended website or service,” says Xinow. There are other blocking methods used by Russia. One stops TLS connections, the cryptographic mechanism that controls most internet connections, which in turn blocks access to certain websites. Another method involves delivering block notices to users attempting to access a website by manipulating the Domain Name System, or DNS, which is essentially the Internet’s phone book. If the browser cannot access this phone book, it cannot load the website.
The system can work, but it has its drawbacks. “When censorship is so decentralized, it means that it is less effective than if it were centralized,” says Xinow. Russia has taken some steps to try and fix this, but in recent history it has struggled to enforce nationwide blocking or bans on websites deemed questionable. This is because of the way the Russian Internet infrastructure works.
“The Russian Internet ecosystem is poorly integrated into the global one,” says Alena Epifanova, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a non-profit foreign policy organization that has studied Russian Internet censorship and infrastructure. “We see a lot of foreign companies involved in managing their infrastructure, from telecommunications to data delivery networks.” including Nokia, whose hardware is reported to support SORMan extensive Russian social media surveillance operation.
Seemingly aware of this, Russia has made some progress in separating itself from the global Internet infrastructure, allowing it to exercise greater control over the flow of information. “It’s all about controlling information,” says Epifanova. “They are afraid of information.”
To avoid the spread of compromising information, Russia is trying to develop its own sovereign technological capabilities. In 2015 Russian National Security Strategy introduced provisions for what was considered “rational import substitution” – or the replacement of foreign-made IT equipment with domestic alternatives. The move was designed to help mitigate the effects of sanctions that have caused internet infrastructure provider Cogent Communications to export from Russia a month ago. The nationalist policy also served another purpose: to give Russia more power over the companies that provide electricity and Internet access on its territory. It didn’t quite work: Russia remains dependent on international companies to power much of its internet, though it did relatively well with Kogent’s departure. It simply redirected traffic to other backbones of the Internet, which dealt with the breach.
But the protectionist pivot of 2015 is not the only step Russia has taken towards isolating its internet. In May 2019, Putin declared Runet, a sovereign internet cut off from the rest of the world, as part of a domestic internet law that It entered into force in November 2019. The Runet has three pillars: one involves installing packet tracking equipment on company networks, allowing the Russian state to monitor what is being said on the Internet. Another gives authorities the authority to centralize control over the Internet, and a third creates a national DNS system, which means Russia can ensure that no one within its borders can easily access banned websites. The national DNS system supports localized copy of the global internet inside Russia, similar to the intranet-style system maintained by China and, to a lesser extent, Iran with its national information network. By December 24, 2019 Russia stated he successfully tested disconnecting from the global Internet without having to connect to the rest of the world via the Russian network. 10 Famous Public Internet Exchange Points— although the effectiveness and legitimacy of the tests are disputed. “The whole scale of implementation is unknown,” says Epifanova, “perhaps Russia likes it so much.
But there are signs that Russia is making progress, even if it remains frustratingly slow for officials. Back in March 2021, Roskomnadzor announced that he restricted access to Twitter in Russia because he claimed it contained content promoting drug use, the sexualization of children, and suicide. To the surprise of many, it worked. Instead of ISPs implementing specific measures to block Twitter, a new method called TSPU (Threat Countermeasures Technology Solution) has emerged. was implemented. The TPSU method, as far as international observers can tell, uses deep packet inspection units that sniff Internet traffic for matching blacklisted URLs and then stop all packets containing those requests from being executed. Simply put, if you want to visit a website that Russia doesn’t want, you simply won’t be able to connect to it.
There was only one problem with Twitter regulation in March 2021: it was coded incorrectly. In addition to collecting all requests to Twitter and related sites in his network, he also blocked access to any site that contained “t.co” (the shortened URL used by Twitter) anywhere in the URL, which stands for reddi.becausem and microsofbecausem was also banned. “They ended up breaking the rule and choking off all kinds of traffic,” Madori says. “Engineers all over the world could empathize. It was a pretty funny story.”
Since then, everything has changed. recent attempt the restriction on access to Twitter, which OONI said took place between February 26 and March 4, was more successful, and Twitter has not operated in Russia since. Such successes show that Russia may be moving towards the desired splinternet. “It’s definitely worrisome,” says Xinow. “In general, censorship has always been very decentralized, while centralized stifling of the service has only been observed in the country in the last year.” Such a move suggests that Russia may be moving towards a centralized Chinese approach to online censorship. “That would mean that the introduction of censorship would be much more pervasive and more effective,” says Xinow. Such a system, she adds, would make it much more difficult for Russians to bypass any blockages. Adding a fourth country besides China, North Koreaand Iran into the list of those who tightly control the online world would also have a potentially detrimental domino effect and encourage other countries to attempt similar repression.
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