Will Russia Disconnect From the Internet on April 1?

A protester holds up a sign that reads, "Putin net."
An opposition rally took place in Moscow on March 10, 2019 to demand internet freedom in Russia.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/Getty Images

Earlier this year, Russia announced plans to briefly disconnect its internet from the rest of the world by or on April 1. The scheduled exercise was intended to test its ability to create an isolated, sovereign internet. However, it’s unclear if the test will proceed on the original timeline.

The internet disconnection experiment was agreed on in January during a session of the Information Security Working Group, which includes a co-founder of Kaspersky Lab and representatives of major telecommunications companies such as Beeline and MTS. The working group is advising the Russian Duma on implementing a sovereign internet bill currently under consideration. The bill aims to create a centralized traffic control system in Russia, build a national domain database, and require Russian network operators to install government-approved tools for counteracting potential cyber threats. As Robert Morgus and Justin Sherman described recently in Future Tense, with this bill, Russia is taking steps to alter the very architecture of its internet, “which, once enacted, would be difficult to reverse.”

As lawmakers debated the draft of the bill, however, concerns arose about the feasibility and costs of the project, prompting the decision to hold a test prior to proceeding. The proposed test caught both Russian and Western media’s attention in February when the outlet RBC reported that it would take place by April 1, in line with the Information Security Working Group’s recommendation. Natalia Kaspersky, who chairs the working group, confirmed to RBC that a test “or something similar” would be needed “to understand how the project can be carried out.” However, Kaspersky didn’t provide a timeline for the testing. On March 28, Russian media again reported that a test was scheduled to take place before the second reading of the bill but gave no specific dates for the test or the reading. (Typically, a bill is required to pass through three rounds of readings, according to Duma regulations. The version of the bill presented in the second reading is supposed to contain all necessary amendments, based on lawmaker and expert feedback to the first draft. If no more changes are proposed, the bill passes to the third reading, when deputies cast their final votes on the measure.)

The goal of the test is to supply internet service providers with data about how their networks would react if the domestic internet were disconnected from global servers. It’s also meant to be a showcase of ISP capabilities to direct data to government-controlled routing points, which filter traffic and only allow data exchanged between Russians to reach its destination. So, if and when the test is conducted, Russians won’t find themselves entirely without the internet—they just won’t be able to receive and send data beyond Russian borders. It’s not clear how long the exercise is intended to last.

In order to pull this off, Russia would have to ensure that all the content Russians want to access is located inside the country, Nicole Starosielski, a professor at New York University, told Wired in February. Issues are almost certain to arise: ISPs cannot know precisely how much their networks actually rely on infrastructure outside Russian borders until they’re disconnected.

According to Noah Buyon, research associate at Freedom House, the planned test is a lose-lose scenario for users. If Russia succeeds at isolating its internet from the global network, “users could lose access to web resources hosted beyond Russia’s territorial borders, including independent news media and pathways for circumventing existing website blocks,” he told me via email. And if the test fails, “the country may experience a self-inflicted internet shutdown. In that case, web services that users rely on every day could be disrupted.” No matter the outcome of the experiment, Russians will suffer its consequences.

When the idea of holding a test was proposed, the Information Security Working Group said that it plans to study the results and then recommend changes to the internet bill before it proceeds to its second Duma reading. The overall budget for the Runet project is estimated at 27 billion rubles (about $415 million), although only 2 million rubles (about $31,000) have been allocated for the test disconnection.

If the test ever actually takes place, whether Sunday or some other time, it will be an indication Russia could be well on its way to its goal: routing up to 95 percent of internet traffic through domestic servers by 2020.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.