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Kremlin Critics, Some Putin Allies Agree: Isolated Russian Web a Fantasy

MOSCOW, Nearly a week after Russia's lower house of parliament approved a preliminary measure aimed at safeguarding internet operations in case of a foreign cyber attack, Kremlin critics and some lawmakers seem to agree the entire enterprise is beyond the country's technological capabilities.

The bill, which proposes the creation of "Runet," a domestic network that would be designed to function independently of the global internet, has drawn comparisons to China's "great firewall."

Russian state-run media say the legislation was drafted in response to tensions with Western nations that accuse Moscow of perpetrating cyberattacks via social media platforms to wreak havoc in foreign elections.

Critics, however, call the legislation a Kremlin ploy to control domestic cyber-infrastructure, all part of a broader campaign to expand censorship and blunt online political mobilization campaigns.

The bill calls for Russian web traffic and data to be rerouted through points controlled by the state and for the creation of a domestic Domain Name System that would allow the internet to continue functioning in Russia even if it is cut off from foreign infrastructure.

During last week's first reading, the proposed law sparked exasperation from some minority lawmakers who feared it would trigger a dysfunctional "internet Brexit," whole others questioned how Russia would build the technical infrastructure required to support the legal provisions. By Brexit, they were drawing comparisons to Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

No IT experts among MPs

"How many of you are IT experts here, raise your hand. One? Then how can we vote for a bill we don't understand?" said Valery Gartung, a lawmaker with the Kremlin-loyal Just Russia party.

"Russia doesn't manufacture any IT hardware except cables; maybe some people should hang themselves on them," said MP Sergei Ivanov of the nationalist LDPR, President Vladimir Putin's former chief of staff.

One of the bill's authors is Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer and one of the key suspects in the 2006 murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in Britain. Lugovoi dismissed the critics, emphasizing the massive cyber threat he says the U.S. poses.

"This isn't kindergarten!" he shouted at the reading. "All of the websites in Syria" have been turned off by the U.S. before.

In a 2014 interview with Wired magazine, U.S. surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden alleged that the National Security Agency accidentally cut off Syria's internet while attempting to infiltrate it in 2012.

Concern about US cyber aggression

Andrei Soldatov, who co-authored The Red Web, a history of internet surveillance in Russia, said concern about U.S. cyber aggression is just the latest pretext for political censorship campaigns that can be traced to the Soviet era.

"Look at the text of the legislation," he said. "Censorship and filtering is an essential part of it. It calls for new equipment to be installed with all internet service providers" that alters or impedes traffic flows and filters content. "This has nothing to do with protection against the U.S.; I don't buy this explanation that it's all about protecting the Russian internet users or the Russian internet against possible U.S. aggression."

"The government is now mostly concerned with one thing: the mobilizing capability of the internet," he said, explaining that Kremlin-led efforts to gain control of the internet since Russia's historic 2012 street protests have scored preciously few successes. "So they actually want to strip in the internet of this capability." During Soviet times, he said, the idea was to seal the country completely in order to stop the spread of uncensored information.

"But today, even with the filtering we have now, if you want to get access to some sensitive information on the internet, you can get it quite easily," he said. "The idea is to prevent social platforms and the internet as a whole from being used by political activists to start unrest."

Although an isolated Russian net will compromise prospects for international digital commerce, Soldatov said officials aren't likely concerned, as the country's nearly decade-long "climate of internet uncertainty" has already forced some Russia IT companies to flee the market.

Kremlin officials long ago decided to put security before commerce, Soldatov said.

"Two years ago, Putin signed a new draft of the information security doctrine. And if you check the text, you can see the main idea there is that Russian telecommunication and IT companies should check first with Russian security services before introducing new technologies, he said. "So it's clear that security comes first and technological progress comes second, and that's not good for business. It means that you first have to go to the FSB and ask them whether they're happy with this or that new technology."

Internet freedom

Asked if it will be possible for free speech and internet freedom advocates to circumvent impending restrictions, Soldatov voiced optimism.

"Yes, absolutely. It's already clear that this kind of system would have gaps. The system would be quite porous, because we are talking about the internet itself, and it's a technology that by definition was designed to find a way for traffic to go," he said.

"And this is the case for many countries, like in China, [where] entire communities of activists could find a way," he added. "The problem is for the rest. So you sort of see an internet divided, with, say, 70 percent or 80 percent of people who live in a situation they accept, and then you have some activists who would find a way, and that's what might happen."

In an interview with Riga-based Meduza news outlet, Stanislav Shakirov of the digital censorship watchdog "Roskomsvoboda" said Russia, unlike China, lacks the domestic investment infrastructure to develop its own tech startups, a fact that would be likely to doom the commercial prospects for an independent Russian internet.

"Not only are Russian internet users accustomed to having their pick of Western online services, but Russia's domestic market isn't big enough to sustain competition in isolation, and its unfriendly business climate remains a major hindrance," he said.

But Ekho Moskvy radio anchor Alexander Plushev, who has reported on internet freedom issues in Russia for years, says supporters of the bills aren't concerned with security, commerce or censorship.

"I think it's just corruption, just to get money, to build their own independent network," he said, explaining that it is primarily Russian government contractors who stand to profit from a privatized Russian internet. "That's the main reason for this law."

Source: Voice of America