Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov talked with Russian journalists on Wednesday, February 27, following news reports in the United States claiming that US Cyber Command had actively hacked and briefly taken offline the St. Petersburg–based Internet Research Agency. The US cyber strike on this entity, often referred to as the Kremlin’s “troll farm,” occurred on Election Day, November 6, 2018, in an effort to disrupt Russian attempts to disrupt the midterms. Peskov asserted that, while he could not corroborate the story’s authenticity, it nonetheless illustrated the threat to Russia from foreign cyberattacks. He added, “…given these potential threats, legislative procedures are being carried out to pass legislation like the so-called sovereign Internet bill” (TASS, February 27).
Peskov’s comments closely echoed remarks, on February 20, by President Vladimir Putin, who told reporters that the country could be cut off from the global Internet due to the “unpredictability of our partners.” The Kremlin leader added, however, that Russia is not going to wall itself off from the global Internet (Rosbalt, February 20). Yet, his assurances contradicted a bill passed weeks earlier by the Russian State Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian parliament). That legislation “on the organizational, administrative and technical measures on protecting the Internet in Russia,” referenced today by Peskov, was overwhelmingly adopted (334 to 47) in the first reading (Izvestia, February 12). It was originally proposed, on December 14, 2018, by Andrei Klishas and Ludmila Bokova (senators of the upper chamber Federation Council) and Andrei Lugovoi (deputy in the Duma). The explanatory text attached to the bill declares that these reforms are necessary due to the “aggressive nature of the US Cyber Strategy adopted in 2018.”
The bill emphasizes four main sets of measures (Interfax, February 12):
– Restrictions on the outflow of information—to be achieved via a clear delineation of the rules pertaining to Internet traffic. This means that “an opportunity is being created to minimize the transmission abroad of data exchanged by Russian users”;
– Content-filtering—to be achieved via technical elements that will indicate the original source of data transmission. It is noted that “these technical means are to have all necessary qualities that will restrict access to resources with undesirable content… Infrastructure is being created that should allow Russian Internet resources to function in case of being switching off from foreign Internet servers”;
– A training and preparation program—which envisages “regular training among state organs and institutions, data operators and owners of technological networks, aimed at identifying threats and rehearsing measures concerned with the rapid recuperation of the Runet [Russian segment of the Internet] in case of emergency”;
– The institutionalization of control over data flows—via the prospective creation of a Center for Monitoring and Control (CMC), which would answer to the Russian government.
The bill produced a mixed reaction. Unanimous support (with some recommendations) came from the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media (MinComSvyaz Rossii); the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor); the Federal Communications Agency (Rossvyaz); the Federal Protective Service (FSO); and the Federal Service of Technical and Expert Control. The reaction of business-related circles and economists, meanwhile, was quite antithetical. The Accounts Chamber (AC) of the Russian Federation voiced its discontent, stating that a practical implementation of the bill would “result in the increasing cost of goods and services on the Russian market, as well as growing expenditures from the Federal budget.” AC head Alexei Kudrin complained that a rapid adoption of the bill ignored input from the private IT and business sector. Moreover, he warned that the lack of clear norms will result in decreasing investments inflows, thus undermining the unfolding process of the digitalization of the Russian economy (Rosbalt, February 12). Similarly, the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) concluded that the bill in its current form poses numerous risks to the Russian economy, including a worsening quality of services and even temporary problems with e-data transmission (Interfax, February 12). Notably, both the AC and the RSPP pointed to the bill’s additional expenditures on the Russian budget—a luxury that sanctioned and cash-strapped Russia cannot currently afford.
The legislators behind the Internet bill are significantly more optimistic. For example, Senator Klishas stated that the government will initially allocate 20 million rubles ($300,000) toward online security, claiming, “the budget has all the necessary economic means to enact all measures related to the implementation of the initiative… [and] all further expenditures will be calculated” (Rosbalt, February 7). It remains unclear, however, what will be the “price” of implementing the whole legislative package and what the potential long-term implications may be.
The adoption of the bill in the first reading has reignited a debate in the Russian mass media and blogosphere regarding the fate of the Runet. On February 17, someone posted an online petition against the bill. Among other aspects, it states, “We, the citizens of Russia, are sick and tired of the continuous abridging of freedom and introduction of repressive laws. On TV and in pro-Kremlin newspapers, experts are trying to convince us that isolation of the Russian segment of the Internet is not an option. In fact, they are just preparing the ground for further repressions. By the same token, 20 years ago they were saying that it would be impossible to destroy mass media in Russia. And 8 years ago—that people will not be imprisoned for online memes. We will not allow them to fool us” (Russianpulse.ru, February 17).
Indeed, the Internet is rapidly becoming a sphere of increasing state pressure against individual dissent. In 2017, the international human rights group Agora indicated a staggering 115,706 cases of violations of freedoms online (110,000 pertained to the unlawful filtering of content) (Agora.legal, February 5, 2018). Whereas, another human rights organization, Freedom House, ranked Russia 67th (out of 100 countries) in terms of Internet freedoms (Freedomhouse.org, accessed February 21, 2019).
The Russian population’s stance on the matter is perplexing to say the least. Research carried out by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) a year ago showed that 36 percent of respondents wholeheartedly support the idea of a “sovereign Internet” (Current Time TV, January 29, 2018). The real number, given traditionally high levels of indifference among ordinary Russians, might be much higher. Russia is apparently starting to lay the groundwork for “autonomating” its domestic Internet (see EDM, December 16, 2016; December 13, 2017; March 8, 2018). This is not a step toward mere isolationism. Rather, Moscow is building a model that could be reapplied to other supranational Internet-related projects.