What is RuNet, Russia’s internet that could disconnect its population from the global network?

During the early hours of July 4-5, Russia experienced a temporary disconnection from the global internet network. This interruption, lasting two hours, effectively prevented Russian citizens from accessing international servers or platforms like Google. The disconnection was a planned event, part of routine exercises conducted by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technologies and Mass Media (commonly known as ‘Roskomnadzor’). The purpose of these exercises is to evaluate the ability of the Russian RuNet internet to function independently in the face of network distortions, blockades, or other external threats.

Numerous Russian media outlets, including RBK, have reported on this event. According to these reports, Kremlin sources have emphasized that these stability exercises are mandated by the ‘Sovereign Internet Law,’ enacted in 2019. The law stipulates that such exercises must be conducted at least once a year to safeguard the Russian internet from potential external disruptions or threats. However, the authorities and affiliated companies have refrained from disclosing specific details about the tasks performed during these tests.

What is RuNet, the “Russian sovereign internet”?

Josep Albors, Director of Research and Awareness at ESET Spain, explains to Newtral.es that “although the term RuNet was born to refer to the segment of the Internet with specific content for the inhabitants of Russia”, which in Spain would be the servers or websites whose domain ends in ‘.es’, “in recent years RuNet has been referred to as an attempt by the Russian government to create its own intranet isolated from the global Internet”.

Raquel Puebla, cybersecurity analyst at Entelgy Innotec Security, told Newtral.es that RuNet was set up as part of a project “whose main purpose is to create an internal network independent from other countries, increasing Russia’s digital security by using it as a preventive measure against possible cyberattacks that could come from abroad”.

Thus, although the RuNet project originated in 2014, experts point out that it really began to take shape with the entry into force on November 1, 2019 of the “Sovereign Internet Law”. As indicated by the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation in its State Duma, this regulation was approved by the Kremlin with the aim of making “the Internet available to Russian citizens regardless of external or internal conditions” and mainly provides for:

The installation of special equipment in the networks of all operators in the country, through which the Federal Service ‘Roskomnadzor’ can manage and control network traffic.
The obligation for communication network owners, companies and other industry players in Russia to participate in “regular exercises” to test the stability of RuNet.

According to Puebla, the rules contemplated by this law can also be conceived as “an instrument of censorship” that “will allow Russian government institutions to decide which content can be viewed by its citizens and which cannot, releasing exclusively those informative contents decided by the government”.

The first tests focused on “verifying the security of RuNet”.

The first operational tests of this independent Russian internet were carried out in December 2019 and, as reported by the Russian agency Tass, on this occasion the Ministry of Telecommunications and Mass Communications did provide details on the exercises carried out, announcing that government agencies and telecommunications operators were ready “to ensure the stable operation of RuNet”.

According to details provided by the Russian government, these initial tests focused on verifying the integrity and security of RuNet in the face of external influences and on ensuring the protection of the personal data of connected users. On the other hand, the security risks that the devices might have were also analyzed.

What implications could its implementation have for Russian citizens?

The State Duma explains that RuNet makes it possible to ensure the operation of Russian Internet resources in the event of inability to connect to foreign servers and also creates an opportunity to minimize the transfer abroad of data that Russian users exchange with each other. They also claim that this network is part of the global digital space and that, when critics of the “Sovereign Internet Law” talk about its isolation from the World Wide Web, they “turn the essence and objectives of the law upside down”.

However, groups fighting against Internet censorship, such as Roskomsvoboda, denounce that, instead of protecting Russia from external threats, RuNet is being used as a tool to combat opposition information. In fact, in July 2021, in application of this law, the Prosecutor General’s Office blocked 49 websites linked to imprisoned Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny, including his own personal page on which he had published investigations into alleged high-level corruption, as reported by The Moscow Times.

RuNet and social networks

As ESET Spain’s Director of Research and Awareness points out, with the creation of RuNet, the Russian government could have “almost absolute control over the traffic of the content consumed and the services accessed, as well as the publications made by its users”. With the control of connection nodes, in addition to domain name servers (DNS) by the Government, access to social networks such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook could be “highly restricted and even interrupted indefinitely”, says the expert.

In this sense, Raquel Puebla, cybersecurity analyst at Entelgy Innotec Security, points out that if RuNet were to be implemented, “censorship would skyrocket on these networks, as the government could selectively block content that they consider to be of little benefit to the path they wish to follow”.

However, the expert recalls that the social networks we know and use in the rest of the world “are not so common” in Russia, since there are “others of national development such as VK, which has come to be known as the Russian Facebook”, so that “probably in cases of prohibition of the use of Western social networks citizens would migrate to these others”.

Similar Internet systems in other countries

Other “similar, though not the same, examples of what the Russian government is trying to achieve with RuNet” would be, according to Albors, the North Korean national intranet Kwangmyong or China’s great firewall, which have already managed to restrict user access to certain web content.

All these cases “have been widely conceived as instruments through which governments, usually authoritarian, censor the content accessed by their citizens, trying to influence the critical thinking of the nation to suit the geopolitical future projects conceived by their sovereigns,” adds Puebla.

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