Future Tense

Russia’s Nonsensical, Impossible Quest to Create Its Own Domestic Internet

Ethernet cables plugged in.
Jordan Harrison/Unsplash

As a general rule, when a country shuts off some or all of its connections to the global internet, it doesn’t need to announce the news. People in that country notice when they can’t access online services, and people outside that country can quickly figure out that something’s going on when they stop receiving traffic from that country or being able to route traffic to servers and service providers in that country. So it was pretty strange when Russia decided to announce last week that it had successfully run tests between June 15 and July 15 to show it could disconnect itself from the internet.

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The tests seem to have gone largely unnoticed both in and outside of Russia, indicating that whatever they entailed they did not involve Russia actually disconnecting from the global internet. Indeed, it’s a little difficult to guess at what exactly the tests did involve given the vagueness of a report in the RBC Daily. The Russian newspaper published an article on July 21 reporting that the month of tests had been a success, citing documents from an information security working group that indicated all of the major telecom providers in Russia had participated in the tests. The exercises are supposed to be held annually but were canceled last year due to the pandemic, and whatever went on this year definitely did not include Russia disconnecting from the global internet for any prolonged period of time since that would be impossible to hide. Instead, the tests—and, most of all, the announcement about their success—seem to be intended as some kind of signal that Russia is no longer dependent on the rest of the world for its internet access. But it’s not at all clear what that would even mean since Russia is clearly still dependent on people and companies in other countries for access to the online content and services they create and host—just as we all are.

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For the past two years, ever since implementing its “sovereign internet law” in 2019, Russia has been talking about establishing its own domestic internet that does not rely on any infrastructure or resources located outside the country. Presumably, the tests completed this summer are related to that goal of being able to operate a local internet within Russia that does not rely on the global Domain Name System to map websites to specific IP addresses. This is not actually a particularly ambitious goal—any country could operate its own domestic internet with its own local addressing system if it wanted to do so instead of connecting to the larger global internet (the one I would call the “Internet” if I were still permitted by style guides to use a capital “I” in that word—and, this is exactly why Internet is grammatically important: to distinguish between smaller, local internetworks, or internets, like Russia’s and the global, public Internet you are using to read this article).

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The confusing thing about Russia’s plans is it seems to want to be able to use its isolated Russian internet to access the global internet. So, by design, the tests of Russia’s sovereign internet did not cause any interruption to its connection to the global internet—but it’s completely unclear what they actually did. One source apparently told the Russian newspaper RBC Daily that “the capability of physically disconnecting the Russian part of the internet was tested.” But there’s simply no way that Russia could have physically disconnected its infrastructure from the rest of the world for any extended period of time without anyone noticing.

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The Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis at the University of California San Diego maintains an Internet Outage Detection and Analysis tool that combines three data sets to identify internet outages around the world. It monitors the Border Gateway Protocol that is used by internet service providers to exchange routing information, as well as what IP addresses it is receiving traffic from, and which addresses it is able to probe, to figure out when parts of the internet become unreachable or go offline. When there is an actual internet outage, typically one or more of these indicators drops significantly because the region stops exchanging routing information with outside providers, stops sending outbound traffic, or stops receiving inbound traffic. The data sets for Russia from June 15 through July 15, the period of the supposed disconnection tests, shows few indications of any actual disconnection other than a period around July 5 when unsolicited traffic from Russia appears to have dropped off.

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Whatever Russia did this summer, it did not physically disconnect from the global internet. It doesn’t even appear to have virtually disconnected from the global internet in any meaningful sense. Perhaps it shifted some of its critical infrastructure systems to rely more on domestic service providers and resources. Perhaps it created more local copies of the addressing system used to navigate the internet and tested its ability to rely on those. Perhaps it tested its ability to route online traffic within the country through certain chokepoints for purposes of better surveillance and monitoring. None of those are activities that would be immediately visible from outside the country and all of them would be in line with Russia’s stated goals of relying less on internet infrastructure outside its borders and strengthening its ability to monitor online activity.

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But the goal of being completely independent of the rest of the world’s internet infrastructure while still being able to access the global internet is a nonsensical and impossible one. Russia cannot both disconnect from the internet and still be able to use all of the online services and access all of the websites hosted and maintained by people in other parts of the world, as appears to have been the case during the monthlong period of testing. So it’s a little hard to know what to make of last week’s reports about the successful tests of the Russian domestic internet. If the announcement is meant as public posturing, it’s not clear what message, exactly, it’s intended to send. Being able to disconnect your country from the internet is not all that difficult—and certainly nothing to brag about. But announcing that you’ve successfully disconnected from the internet when it’s patently clear that you haven’t suggests both profound technical incompetence and a deep-seated uncertainty about what a domestic Russian internet would actually mean.

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

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