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Putin approves possible isolation of Russian internet

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a policy to set in motion the isolation of the Russian internet, potentially allowing it to function independently from the rest of the internet.

Earlier this year, the country’s internet service providers (ISPs) prepared for a trial in which the local internet space (the ‘Runet’) would be temporarily disconnected from the wider internet. This requires Russian telecommunications companies to introduce mechanisms to re-route Russian internet traffic through exchange points managed or approved by the national telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, so that all traffic sent between Russians is not routed outside the country, where it could be vulnerable to interception.

The trial was in preparation for the Digital Economy National Program: a policy which had been under discussion for years. According to the New American Foundation’s analysis of the policy, the policy 1) pulls traffic exchange points under the jurisdiction of the law and 2) provides Roskomnadzor with the power to “centralise management over the Russian internet in cases where the “integrity, stability, and security” of the Russian internet is threatened. This means that the regulator would have the power to control the availability of internet services in the country, and to cut off external traffic exchange entirely.

The policy seeks to ensure that the country is protected from hostile state-backed cyber attacks, and eventually for the Runet to be detachable from the wider internet if necessary. The local internet would be “sustainable, secure, and fully functioning”, Kremlin documents say.

The policy was approved overwhelmingly by the Russian parliament in April, despite protests from some citizens. Putin’s final approval makes the controversial policy law, although isolating the Runet is likely to be complicated, expensive and time-consuming in practice.

A representative for the Russian Embassy told CNET that the law would not create an “independent internet” but would provide a “stable operation of the Russian internet in case it is disconnected from the global infrastructure of the World Wide Web”.

Critics of the Digital Economy National Program argue that it could lead to government censorship of the internet. While the Kremlin has extremely well-resourced and active propaganda operations and subtly encourages ‘self-censorship’, it has largely avoided explicit and far-reaching censorship of the sort enabled in China with the establishment of its ‘Great Firewall’.

However, the encrypted messaging app Telegram was blocked last year after refusing to share encrypted data with the Russian government, and in March Russian lawmakers approved legislation which could jail people using the internet to spread “disrespect for society, the state, state symbols of the Russian Federation” and Putin himself. Individuals and companies found guilty of posting ‘fake news’ could be punished with fines.

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