Disconnected: Russia Tests Its Own Internet

Until recently the Internet has covered the globe without being sectioned off by some countries. Now Russia’s Ministry of Communications has said it has successfully tested a country-wide alternative to the global Internet, which has been given the title Runet.

Russia has begun testing a national internet system that would function as an alternative to the worlwide web. Exactly what stage the country has reached is unclear, but certainly the goal of a resilient and  more easily controlled Internet.

The Internet is made up of a global web of infrastructure that must interface physically, virtually and, increasingly, politically with the countries to which it connects. Some countries, like China, have opted to very carefully regulate that interface, controlling which websites, apps and services can be accessed from the local side of that interface. Details of what the test involved were vague but, according to the Ministry of Communications, ordinary users did not notice any changes.

Runet is essentially an effort to restrict the points at which Russia’s internal network infrastructure connects to the outside world. Should the government ever deem it necessary, it could block those connections and allow Runet to handle online communications within the country like a giant Intranet. In that way, Russia could seal Internet users off from the outside world to lock down access to information and stifle communication. This setup would also prevent VPNs from functioning as they wouldn’t be able to connect to the necessary servers outside of Runet. 

Experts remain concerned about the trend for some countries to dismantle the Internet. "Sadly, the Russian direction of travel is just another step in the increasing breaking-up of the Internet......Increasingly, authoritarian countries which want to control what citizens see are looking at what Iran and China have already done.....' said Prof Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at the University of Surrey speaking to the BBC..

How would a domestic Internet work?
Russia has been vague on exactly how Runet operates, but experts believe it would be similar to the systems already in place in countries like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Authorities claim the test went as expected and regular internet users didn’t notice any disruption in services.

The initiative involves restricting the points at which Russia's version of the net connects to its global counterpart, giving the government more control over what its citizens can access.

Countries receive foreign web services via undersea cables or "nodes" - connection points at which data is transmitted to and from other countries' communication networks. These would need to be blocked or at least regulated. This would require the co-operation of domestic ISPs and would be much easier to achieve if there were just a handful of state-owned firms involved. The more networks and connections a country has, the more difficult it is to control access. Then Russia would need to create an alternative system.

In Iran, the National Information Network allows access to web services while policing all content on the network and limiting external information. It is run by the state-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran.

One of the benefits of effectively turning all internet access into a government-controlled walled garden, is that virtual private networks (VPNs), often used to circumvent blocks, would not work. Another example of this is the so-called Great Firewall of China. It blocks access to many foreign internet services, which in turn has helped several domestic tech giants establish themselves.

Russia already tech champions of its own, such as Yandex and Mail.Ru, but other local firms might also benefit.
And the country aims to build its own Wikipedia and politicians have passed a bill that bans the sale of smartphones that do not have Russian software pre-installed.

Technical challenges
One expert warned that the policy could help the state repress free speech, but added that it was not a foregone conclusion that it would succeed. "The Russian government has run into technical challenges in the past when trying to increase online control, such as its largely unsuccessful efforts to block Russians from accessing encrypted messaging app Telegram," Justin Sherman, a cyber security policy fellow at the New America think tank, told the BBC. "Without more information about this test though, it's hard to assess exactly how far Russia has progressed in the path towards an isolatable domestic internet.

 Russian news agencies reported that the deputy head of the Ministry of Communications had said that the tests of the scheme had gone as planned."The results of the exercises showed that, in general, both the authorities and telecoms operators are ready to effectively respond to emerging risks and threats, to ensure the stable functioning of both the internet and unified telecommunication network in the Russian Federation," said Alexey Sokolov.

The Tass news agency reported that the tests had assessed the vulnerability of Internet-of-things devices, and also involved an exercise to test Runet's ability to stand up to "external negative influences".

TASS:           ExtremeTech:          BBC:         TechCrunch:

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