Vladimir Putin has been trying to control the internet for years. Now, a widespread blackout suggests this kind of connectivity nightmare may suddenly have come true. So, does Russia’s president finally have his internet kill switch?
The reason for Russia’s widespread internet blackout on January 30th remains unclear. “Hundreds of websites on the Russian-speaking internet were inaccessible,” reported The Moscow Times. “Users both inside and outside Russia complained of outages of major web-based platforms like Tinkoff Bank, online marketplaces Avito and Wildberries, search engine Yandex and telecoms provider MTS.”
The Moscow Times attributed the failure to “a DNSSEC failure [that] took .ru and .рф domains offline.” This is certainly what the country’s top-level domain name regulator said was behind the issue, describing the it as “a technical failure.”
If only it were that simple.
While it might have been the most notable event of its kind, January 30th was not isolated. These “increasing incidents,” reported WorldCrunch, “indicate the Kremlin is developing a system, with elements from Chinese and Iranian censorship, to restrict internet access to build a new higher level of control over information.”
They’re referring to the continual expansion of Russia’s “sovereign internet,” a system designed to duplicate the World Wide Web to protect Russia’s information ecosystem from outside interference, but in reality to bring it under the Kremlin’s control.
I first reported on this back in early 2019, when Putin signed his so-called Russian Internet Law “to disconnect Russia from the World Wide Web.” The stated intent being to deal with “threats to the stable, safe and integral operation of the Russian Internet on Russian territory” by centralizing “the general communications network.”
Put more simply, Russia announced plans for an alternative domain name system. Officials said this was to provide resilience in case it became disconnected from the World Wide Web, for which read action against Russia by the West.
But it was clear from the start that it was more likely something that would be triggered internally to cut off the information flow to/from Russia and quash dissent. Think of this as a parallel system for now, that enables Russia to turn off the external ecosystem and cut-over to its own, if external factors undermine its web. The issue has always been that it’s more likely to be Russia’s leadership deciding to turn off the external web, than any external factors taking the decision for them.
From the beginning, this was always difficult technically. Tests some years earlier had proven that Russia’s internet could be isolated, but that this would be temporary “and everything would go back online within 30 minutes.” The capability was reportedly delivered by October 2019, with sovereign internet “RuNet” servers deployed in ISPs across the country. Annual testing since has been patchy and contained.
When last week’s failure hit, Meduza reported that “observers have speculated that Tuesday’s problems could be related to experiments by the authorities to test the operability of the Russian Internet in isolation.”
The fact that “a technical error” was blamed for shutting down a long list of leading websites doesn’t change the core issue—the spilt system provides a level of government control that they either have used or could use.
The DNS Security (DNSSEC) failure Meduza explains, “barely affected users of Russia’s National Domain Name System—a domestic infrastructure legislated into existence in late 2019 that duplicates the current domain-name scheme responsible for routing Russian Internet traffic.”
So, the resilience appeared to work—to an extent, whether the issue was deliberate or accidental. “In such an emergency,” Meduza says, “federal regulators have the authority to force Russia’s Internet service providers to route traffic to the national DNS.” You can hazard a guess as to what might constitute “an emergency.”
In reality and set against the backdrop of the Ukraine conflict, Russia has been playing ever more with online censorship and disruption—which is why we are also seeing a proposed ban on VPNs from March 1st and we’ve seen popular messaging apps blocked at sensitive times and in sensitive locations.
According to the Net Freedoms Project, “Russian authorities have long warned that they would try to transfer all users in the country to a national DNS server. This is probably what is happening now with a lot of sites in the .ru zone.”
Set against the Russia’s Ukraine backdrop and its increasing isolation, and with March’s Presidential election fast approaching, the timing is critical. Because as Meduza explains “this drastic vision for the Russian Internet gradually became less far-fetched over the years… All requests to the national DNS go through an agency managed by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censor, which expands the state’s capacity to monitor Internet browsing data and control the flow of information.”
Whether the events of January 30th are a precursor to what happens in March remains to be seen, but the likelihood of internet disruption appears to be soaring.
As I commented back in 2019, “Russia and China are often lumped together when it comes to cyber threats, well now Russians are worried that their country is heading down the same path that China has taken towards censorship and isolation.”
Russia’s split internet is now there for all to see. As such, that wider risk now appears to have become reality—Putin has his kill switch.