Russia’s war against Ukraine is catalyzing the fragmentation of the internet

On March 11, 2022, many observers held their breath: the Russian government had instructed Russian website operators to become independent of the world web by that date. While it soon became clear that only state-owned websites and services were separating, the idea of ​​Russia’s decoupling from the global internet has persisted in discussions and reports.

Within weeks of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia had effectively dropped a thick digital iron curtain between its more than 140 million citizens and the rest of the world. The Russian government has blocked numerous news sites and banned many popular Western internet services and social platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. New laws against fake news threaten administrative and criminal charges against those Russians who report on their country’s war in Ukraine.

Despite this crackdown, Russia has not severed ties with the global internet. However, the idea of ​​an autonomous RuNet is more than just a rhetorical device. Russia’s 2019 “Internet sovereignty” law created the legal basis for an on/off switch of sorts. It requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to enable routing of traffic through exchange points approved by the federal agency Roskomnadzor. It also allows Roskomnadzor to force ISPs to route traffic through special override systems that authorities can use to filter and redirect traffic. In addition, from 2021, Russian ISPs must be able to process queries to the Domain Name System (DNS), the Internet telephone directory, on servers located within the country, ensuring that computers can locate Internet resources even in case of nationwide disconnection from global networks.

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How these systems will work in real-life situations remains difficult to assess. An autonomous segment that replicates much of the functionality of the global Internet is more difficult to implement technically than to imagine politically. In any case, while Russia’s ability to disrupt cross-border data transmissions is implausible, it is hardly conceivable that this would not cause significant service degradation. Such a drastic step, therefore, seems unlikely unless the Kremlin deems it necessary to regain control of information or thwart cyber incidents.

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