Russia’s ‘Internyet’: Beginning of the end of the open era?


The United States “needs to be prepared for retaliation in the hard cyber space and soft information space” after killing Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, says a top expert at the Atlantic Council. Iranian influence operations to-date have been different than other state-backed disinformation campaigns, particularly from Russia, writes for AXIOS.

“This style is extremely different than Russia, which we know tries to infiltrate online communities and engage to cause more social chaos,” says Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab within the Atlantic Council.

“The bulk of its foreign-focused operations have focused on amplifying regime propaganda by laundering it through undeclared fronts, such as websites and fake social-media profiles. There has been some divisive content, but this was a small proportion,” says Ben Nimmo, Director of Investigations at social media intelligence firm Graphika.

In the next decade, China will establish a separate root system for their share of the internet. This will mark the end of the global internet era. When the root splits, the United States and its allies should establish a coalition of democratic nations that would offer a stark choice and clear alternative to the Chinese internet governance model for the rest of the world,  Robert K. Knake:

While technically behind the Chinese in implementing their vision of a closed internet, the Russians have taken steps to set up the legal framework to realize that vision. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that made it a crime to spread “fake news” or criticize authorities on social media. In November, President Putin signed Russia’s “Internet Sovereignty” law, mandating that internet traffic flow through a series of government-controlled choke points, thereby giving himself the ability to disconnect Russia from the global internet.

It’s been two months since Russia passed the sovereign internet law giving it the right to cut Runet — the Russian part of the internet — off from the rest of the online world. Not much has changed, despite fears that the new legislation would usher in an era of strict control, notes analyst . Experts say the Russian legal and administrative systems contains enough loopholes and delays to ensure that other controversial laws coming into full force in 2020 will also have little effect, he writes for The Moscow Times.

Mikhail Klimarev, director of the nonprofit Internet Defense Society (right), pointed out that Russian lawmakers have been trying to regulate the Russian part of the internet since 2012.  “I don’t think that will change in 2020, on the contrary, more laws will probably be passed – which will not work. That’s it,” he said.

The legislation, which will come into force next July, has been dubbed the “law against Apple”, as it disproportionately affects the tech giant, known for its insistence on keeping tight control of the apps it allows on its devices, The Economist adds:

Local digital-rights activists like Artem Kozlyuk [above, founder of “RosKomSvoboda”, a non-profit group struggling against Internet censorship] are worried, saying that these apps could “secretly collect information: location, tools and services being used and so on”. The apps can be deleted, but only if users know to do that—and there are suspicions that they might leave behind backdoors into users’ phones after they are gone.

A Russian internet disconnected from the world would probably right now be almost non-functional, analyst Devin Coldewey

Artem Kozlyuk, founder of RosKomSvoboda

Russia, like everyone else, relies on resources located elsewhere in the world constantly, and duplication of many of those resources would be necessary to make it possible for the internet to work anything like normally, should the country decide to retreat into its shell for whatever reason. A separate DNS system would be necessary, as would physical infrastructure connecting parts of the country directly to the rest, which at present must do so through international connections. And that’s just to create the basic possibility of a working Russian intranet.

Whether the Kremlin intends to fully cut Russia off from the global internet remains an open question. But through its support of purpose-built Russian services and its tech sector more generally, Russia has indisputably made significant steps toward going it alone, adds Lily Hay Newman, a senior writer at WIRED focused on information security, digital privacy, and hacking:

In early December, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that will take effect this summer requiring all computers, smartphones, and smart TVs sold in Russia to come pre-loaded with apps from Russian developers. The government is also investing 2 billion rubles—about $32 million—in a Russian Wikipedia alternative. Those initiatives, together with increasingly isolationist infrastructure, points to a desire for markedly increased control. 

“There is not that much data available, but presenting the drills that happened in late December as a real-world exercise about disconnecting Russia from the global internet is probably exaggeration,” says Leonid Evdokimov, a Russian security researcher at Censored Planet who formerly worked for the Tor Project and the Russian web services giant Yandex. “But the internet censorship and overall situation in Russia clearly has a chilling effect. So it seems there is no urgent need for the government to make an isolated internet right now. The current partial censorship and set of laws produce enough of a noticeable effect.”

A leading architect of Russia’s Internet strategy has been Andrey Krutskikh, Putin’s special representative for information security. Sources described a comment he made to a Moscow audience in February 2016, as the Russians were about to launch their hacking assault on the U.S. presidential election: “I’m warning you: We are at the verge of having ‘something’ in the information arena, which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals,” the Washington Post’s David Ignatius notes:

“The Russians see information security as security against information they don’t like,” says Michael Chertoff, a former secretary of homeland security. Russia tries to block reporting that challenges its government narratives, just as China uses its so-called Great Firewall [detailed in a report from the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance] to restrict the flow of negative information inside its borders. Both countries are exporting these censoring technologies to other nations that want to suppress dissent.

“People should pay attention,” adds Chris Painter, the Obama administration’s top cyber diplomat. The Russians have been trying for two decades to shape global Internet rules that match their interests. But with the cybercrime treaty, “they’ve taken it to the next level,” he told Ignatius. 

Russia’s efforts in 2018 to ban the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which largely failed as Telegram and its users deployed anti-censorship techniques. Similarly, Russia’s efforts to crack down on VPNs have been very problematic, but still not comprehensive, WIRED’s Newman adds. 

“I don’t think we’re going to see a large-scale shutdown in Russia or a large-scale block of big digital platforms. It isn’t strategically viable,” says Allie Funk, a research analyst at the pro-democracy group Freedom House, who works on an annual Freedom on the Net global assessment. “Russian users as a whole are extremely politically active and the government doesn’t really want to deter foreign tech companies. So it seems like what they’re trying to do is create an environment in which international or foreign platforms are more willing to comply with Russian laws.”

U.S. military officials are contemplating methods to counter Russian interference efforts in the 2020 elections, the Alliance for Securing Democracy adds:

According to current and former government officials, U.S. Cyber Command is developing capabilities that could be deployed against Russian entities if they attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections. The new options build on an operation from 2018 when Cybercom used emails, pop-ups, and texts to target Russian trolls and took the Internet Research Agency’s servers offline.

In Foreign Affairs, Richard Clarke and Knake proposed establishing an Internet Freedom League that works to overcome differences in internet governance with our European allies and seeks to draw Brazil, India, and other countries into a digital trade pact that would reinforce the value of an internet that is open, interoperable, secure, and reliable, if no longer global, Knake adds.

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