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by Tamian Derivry

  1. What is the so-called “Sovereign Internet law”?

It is a law passed in 2019 by the Duma and is the culmination of a decade-long process of legislative inflation to promote the control of the Internet by Russian authorities. It has two objectives. The first objective is to equip the authorities with the legal and technical means to enable total control of data flows in and out of the country. The second objective is to ensure that the State is able to disconnect the country from the rest of the Internet in case of an external threat.

This law is striking in its excessiveness and ambition, considering that the Internet is a fundamentally distributed network, which has no center, even if there are organizations like ICANN that play a central role, but there is no government of the Internet. Yet this law intends to centralize and bring some verticality to a network, which is fundamentally distributed and horizontal. It also legally establishes the concept of digital frontier. Originally, the Internet is a network that has no political borders, even though many legal borders are emerging. The process of creating political digital borders has huge implications for the way the Russian state conceives of the Internet, but it also influences the orientation of technological research and thus investments in solutions aimed at full control of the network, which could eventually lead to strategies designed to disengage the Russian segment from the rest of the network.

2. In what context was the law adopted?

The development of the Internet in Russia can be divided into three main stages. The first stage is the Soviet era, the Russian proto-Internet. The Internet existed in the USSR from 1988-1989, even if there were some illegal connections from the beginning of the 1980s. The first legal connections were made at the time of the Perestroika when Mikhail Gorbachev authorized small businesses in strategic sectors. This first Internet was set up throughout the USSR, with Russian becoming the main language of communication on the network, with the exception of certain segments, such as the Baltic States, which underwent a specific development. Today, there are still remnants of this Russian proto-Internet, especially with the top-level domain name “.su” for “Soviet Union”, which is still being used by tens of thousands of sites. This is still a major political issue in Russia, reflected in the 2019 law, which provides that national domain names in Russia should be managed directly by the State or indirectly by an association in which the State would be the majority shareholder. This still generates huge political and legal entanglements.

The second stage took place in the 1990s and 2000s, the period of the “underground Runet”. This is when the Russian Internet develops anarchically, from below. Contrary to what happened in France with France Telecom, there was no investment of big companies or the State in the planning of a telecommunication network. In Russia, thousands of operators were gradually emerging as cities and villages sought to connect to the Internet. For example, to connect a small town in Siberia in the 1990s, investors could not be counted on because it was too expensive to lay a cable and maintain the infrastructure in a Russian market that was struggling to attract capital. So small companies were created to provide connectivity “from below”. Today there are still several thousand Internet service providers in Russia, most of which are at the municipal level. This is a long way from Free or Bouygues in France, where 4 operators take 90% of the market. This anarchic and prolific Russian Internet constitutes a sort of golden age of the “underground Runet”. It was also at this time that the first intermediary platforms such as the search engine Yandex and later the social media VKontakte were created, as well as a set of cultural and social practices that characterize the Russian-speaking Internet. This Internet is very different from the Western Internet, not least because the notion of copyright is totally non-existent there, since it did not exist in the USSR, which made the Russian Internet a heaven for all pirates, all counter-cultures. This period is characterized by the absence of regulatory power in the system, which remains poorly connected and therefore remains on the periphery of the cyberspace.

From 2005 onwards, Russia started to attract investors and inaugurated large fiber optic structure along the Trans-Siberian Railway, connecting Europe to Asia. Thanks to these , Russia has suddenly gone from being a peripheral state in the cyberspace to a major highway between two of the three largest economic and demographic poles of the planet, namely Western Europe and East Asia. This had several consequences, including improved bandwidth, development of services and access to Western platforms. Then from 2010 onwards, the nature of the network changed in the eyes of the government, which until now was relatively absent from the management of the network. First, there was a period of enthusiasm and openness embodied by Dmitri Medvedev, who launched several infrastructure projects to attract emerging Western giants. It is worth remembering that just 12 years ago, Russia was trying to open R&D centers for Microsoft, Apple, etc. on its territory.

This period of openness ended in 2011. At that time, Russia experienced the largest demonstrations since the fall of the USSR against the return to office of Vladimir Putin. These demonstrations were largely organized on the Internet, social networks and especially VKontakte, which refused to cooperate with the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) to communicate the identity of organizers. It is this refusal that forced its founder Pavel Dourov to leave Russia and create Telegram, while VKontakte was handed over to interests closer to the government. The Russian authorities became aware that the Internet was a threat to the stability of the regime and to the preservation of the moral order they were defending against Western influence. We are also in the middle of the Arab Spring, which was also driven by social networks. The Russian authorities understood that what happens on the Internet must be regulated, censored and controlled. The first troll farms emerged, as did the first disinformation campaigns, which grew during the Maidan revolution in 2014 and the electoral interference in the United States in 2016, along with the emergence of a specialized industry from 2012. The other tipping point is the Snowden affair in 2013, which enables the Russian government to justify a series of laws asserting state control over the network and the development of a discourse on digital sovereignty. Among other things, Russia passed a law on the relocation of data of natural and legal persons on Russian territory in 2014, followed by the Yarovaya laws in 2016, which obliged operators to share their encryption keys with the state. This legislative inflation culminates in 2019 with an ever-stronger desire on the part of the government to manage cyberspace as it manages physical territory, with border posts and increasingly strict social and ideological control.

3. Can the Russian Internet really cut itself off from the rest of the network?

Today, Russia is not able to ensure the second part of the Sovereign Internet law, i.e. to deconnect from the rest of the network. But the more time passes, the more the possibilities of such a decoupling increase. The sanctions taken in response to the war in Ukraine are promoting this policy of digital isolation. I am thinking in particular of measures that have been taken by major global data routing players, such as London IX. For example, London IX has decided to stop operating in Russia, which contributes to reducing the number of logical routes to Russia, and therefore to increasing the state’s control capabilities. This illustrates the dilemma of sanctions, since this is precisely what the Russian government wants today: to control the logical routes that enter and leave the country.

But Russia has one of the most complex networks in the world for historical reasons. The Russian network is the complete opposite of the Chinese network, which was built “by design” to be controlled. From the first connections in China in 1994, the Chinese government decided to implement controls and censorship. In Russia at the same time, the state was absent, so there was an anarchic development of the Internet from below. In fact, it is still very difficult to coordinate all this system, to constrain the actors, to remove the crossroads and to create real digital border posts. The latter take the form of “anti-threat boxes” (TSPUs) that are supposed to execute the commands sent by Roskomnadzor, the Russian Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. They are connected to the routers of Russian operators and can block access to certain Western news sites or slow down access to Twitter, for example. The more time goes by, the more likely it is that the law of 2019 could be applied regarding the disconnection part in case of a proven threat. This would be the end of the Internet as we know it because if the Russians, who have one of the most difficult networks to control, manage to develop the technology that allows control, they will also be able to sell and export this technology to anyone.

4. What has changed concretely since the beginning of the war in Ukraine?

What has changed in practice is a real authoritarian surge, since all the last remaining safeguards have been removed. In particular, all non-aligned media had to close or were forced into exile. A large part of the Western media was blocked. For me, this is the main impact, there is now an unparalleled control of the Russian-speaking information space by censorship, saturation of discussion spaces by the voice of the authorities, etc.

There have been other changes whose impact has not yet been measured. For example, there is a big question mark over the future of the telecommunications sector, given that 700,000 Russians have fled the country in the two weeks since the announcement of the partial mobilization. Since the beginning of the war, it is probably more than one million people and among them, many professionals of the high technology and telecommunications sector. We do not know yet the consequences of this exodus on the sector. But if there is no one left to maintain it, the network is in danger. Most of the world’s major hardware suppliers have stopped supplying Russia. It is no longer possible to get supplies from the major Western manufacturers to install 4G antennas or routers. Chinese companies, such as ZTE for example, are replacing these Western companies. But what if there is no one to operate this equipment? The Internet is not something that works by magic, it takes a lot of engineers and technicians to maintain the network. All the Chinese equipment in the world won’t make any difference. Today, does Russia still have the capacity to perform these maintenance operations, and to ensure its cybersecurity? This is a real question and everything remains possible.

5. How has the concept of digital sovereignty developed in Russia?

The term does not have the same meaning as in France, where it is more closely related to the concept of strategic autonomy. Before talking about digital sovereignty, it is important to note that there is a very particular conception of sovereignty in Russia. The concept has been transformed and instrumentalized since the 1990s, when Russia was unable to protect its Serbian friend, when it experienced the independence of Kosovo and Western interventions under international humanitarian law as a humiliation. These interventions are perceived as a clear violation of what the Russian power considers the ultimate norm of the international order, the sovereignty of states. This is at least what Russian diplomacy has been saying since the 1990s, and this is where certain concepts come from, such as that long put forward by Putin of the “double standard”, which is saying that there are human rights for the West and human rights for others. This is obviously a fundamentally opportunistic narrative, since Putin could be accused of other double standards, on South Ossetia for example.

At the heart of this question of Russian sovereignty is the idea that the international order should not be governed by Western moral values. If we transpose this into the context of digital sovereignty, it means that the Internet should not be the vehicle for cultural and moral norms that are seen by the Russian leadership and the Orthodox Church as threats to Russian moral integrity, Christian heritage, traditional values and so on. There is also the idea that the Internet cannot remain a distributed network, which it is by nature.

Kevin Limonier is a lecturer at Université Paris-8 and the French Institute of Geopolitics. He is deputy director of the GEODE research centre.

Academic blog : https://villesfermees.hypotheses.org/