Last week the Russian government tried to disconnect its Internet infrastructure from the larger global Web. This test of Russia’s “sovereign Internet” seemingly failed, causing outages that suggest the system is not ready for practical use.
“Sovereign Internet is not really a whole different Internet; it is more like a project that uses various tools,” says Natalia Krapiva, tech-legal counsel at the international digital-rights nonprofit Access Now. “It involves technology like deep packet inspection, which allows major filtering of the Internet and gives governments the ability to throttle certain connections and websites.” By cutting off access to sites such as Western social media platforms, the Russian government could restrict residents from viewing any source of information other than the country’s accepted channels of influence.
This method of curtailing digital freedom goes beyond Russia: other countries are also attempting to develop their own nationwide Internet. And if successful, these endeavors could fragment the World Wide Web. YEAR CATFISH talked with Krapiva over Zoom about the implications of this latest test, the motive behind Russia’s actions and the ways the push for a sovereign Internet affect the digital rights of all users.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why is Russia trying to create a separate Internet?
They want to have full control over the Internet space in which Russian users are existing and operating to make sure that they can do away with Western platforms and to move as many users as possible to the Russian platforms. By doing so, they will make it less technically and politically risky to then throttle and cut off service to outside Western platforms. And they want to do this without losing their own government services or the ability to conduct banking and other transactions.
When did this first begin?
In [2011–2013] we had one of the biggest protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a major challenge to the government’s power that in many ways was facilitated and enabled through the Internet and platforms such as Telegram and others. I think the government was quite scared and considered this a real challenge to their power. This is when they started passing various laws that we’re seeing right now, including the sovereign Internet law.
Since then Russia has made progress on developing its sovereign Internet: last week the country did a test to disconnect its Internet from the rest of the world. How did that go?
They say it was successful, but what does [that] really mean? Are they lying or telling the truth? And second, what does it mean to be successful with that? The fact that they knocked out the railway system and another major goods shipping system, it’s telling me that likely something didn’t go as planned. I wouldn’t take the Russian government’s word for it, whatever they say. The same thing happened in 2021 when they were testing it: when they tried to block Twitter, they also blocked Kremlin websites. So it doesn’t sound like they can implement it in a major way without serious disruption to their own operations of their services and websites.
Why does it matter that regular citizens have access to a global Internet versus a smaller, more tightly controlled Russian one?
Look at what the Russian government did with TV. We had a very vibrant and free media, and gradually the government took over. And right now every single channel is just heavily controlled by the government. And they want to do the same with the Internet. They want to create their own version of reality for the Russian people—that everything is fine, that [Russian president Vladimir] Putin is in control, that also the people around them are supportive of the government—to create this illusion of unity and stability.
Say you were in Russia right now. If the government had a sovereign Internet, could they shut down this Zoom call? What sort of disruptions could everyday Russians expect?
I don’t think they have tried to throttle Zoom, specifically. But yes, they ultimately want to make sure that Russian citizens don’t use Western platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp and YouTube. They want to throttle and block the access to not only that but also VPNs [virtual private networks] because Russians are using VPNs and other circumvention tools [to access blocked platforms and websites].
These platforms can be hard to block, which is the reason why, until the war [with Ukraine], we haven’t really seen major efforts [from the Russian government]—until they blocked Instagram and Facebook. The two Meta platforms that they chose to target were some of the most popular platforms for Russians—not just the opposition but everybody. So it was politically risky for the government to just start blocking. They are doing work to make sure the opposition can’t go to those platforms and ultimately to cut off the opposition’s ability to speak to Russian users.
Is there a timeline for how quickly the nation’s government could implement local Russian versions of these platforms and disconnect from the global ones?
It doesn’t seem like it will be quickly, but I think they’re [promoting] their own version of YouTube and [may possibly create their own version of] Telegram in the next year or so. YouTube has been just so big in Russia, but now apparently [the nation’s government is] putting a lot of investment into [developing its own version] and even luring some of the popular bloggers onto the new platform. People will still be able to use VPNs, but that will reduce the amount of users in Russia that will be accessing the global platforms. Disconnecting is going to be very difficult because the Russian Internet is so much more integrated and dependent on the global Internet, and so many things will just stop working if they do it.
Outside of Russia and China, are there a lot of countries trying to create a sovereign Internet? Why do you think there’s a trend toward closed borders rather than decentralization or openness?
I hear from my colleagues that this idea is finding some sympathizers in Latin America. This whole idea of “We will have our own version of whatever this is, whether that’s a platform or Internet,” it’s definitely resonating. I think we will see more and more of this going forward. It will have ramifications for the entire world and will definitely impact and weaken the infrastructure of the Internet.
I think governments are afraid [because] the Internet empowers people. It challenges the monopoly of governments, and they want to control it. They’re scared of it and see that the Internet is bringing the ability to organize, communicate, raise money, raise support. Powerful states don’t like this challenge, and so they’re trying to surveil and control and censor their people, civil society, opposition, and so on. But I think it’s something that more and more states realize they want: to exert influence in that space because it’s a major challenge to their power.