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Experts say Russia is planning the next step in making the country independent from the West, at least in cyberspace: Moscow wants to install its own root servers. But why, and does it make any sense?
Freedom on the internet has diminished over the years in Russia: people go to jail for posts on social media, there's a ban on VPN services and expanded data storage is hard to come by. And recent moves by the Russian government indicate that further developments are yet to come.
According to a report by the RBK web portal, Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017 ordered his government to negotiate independent root name servers for the so-called domain name system (DNS) with the BRICS states, which apart from Russia include Brazil, India, China and South Africa, by August 2018. These servers contain global databases of public IP addresses and their host names.
If Russia had its own root servers, it could create a kind of internet of its own, experts say.
The reason given is the "dominance of the US and a few EU states concerning internet regulation" which Russia sees as a "serious danger" to its safety, RBK quotes from minutes taken at a meeting of the Russian Security Council. Having its own root servers would make Russia independent of monitors like the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and protect the country in the event of "outages or deliberate interference."
Putin sees Internet as CIA tool
From Moscow's point of view, it would seem the threat of a confrontation with the West in Cyberspace has increased since Russia annexed Crimea. Russia took a closer look at its internet, and found flaws. The country and the economy are too big to live with that threat, Putin advisor Igor Shchegolev said in an interview with RBK. He pointed out North Korea and Syria experienced Internet outages for a few days. The US was believed to be behind the December 2015 outage in North Korea; Washington remained silent, however. Moscow doesn't plan to seal itself off completely, Shchegolev said, only to keep the internet working in the country should there be an "external influence."
President Putin once commented that the internet was developed as a CIA project and continues to move in that direction. Internet technology was in fact developed by order of the US Department of Defense and by that department's employees.
Preparing for cyber warfare
The Russian government can't abide the system because it's set up in a way that governments only have an advisory role with ICANN, said former ICANN board member Wolfgang Kleinwächter. "Unlike the UN Security Council, no one has a permanent seat with veto rights." Moscow, he added, is preparing for a kind of cyber war.
Moscow blogger Alexander Pluschtschev has another explanation: "For somebody, building an 'internet for BRICS' is a very lucrative state job," he said, adding that it has little practical use.
An eye on the root
Russia's plans go right to the root of the internet. The world's entire communication between computers uses all of 13 DNS root servers. The computers store the so-called zone files of top level domains (TLD) like .com (worldwide), .de for Germany or .ru for Russia. Ten root servers are located in the US, one each in The Netherlands, Sweden and Japan. In addition, there are hundreds of anycast server networks worldwide, ten of them in Russia alone.
All root servers are independent. Until September 2016, the US government had oversight over the A root server, which stores the DNS master copy. Now an ICANN subsidiary is responsible for that server. ICANN's contract with the US Department of Commerce ended in 2016, and today, the corporation is a private non-profit company based in California headed by a 20-member board that includes experts from all over the world.
A Russian root server doesn't make much sense, said cybersecurity expert Wolfgang Kleinwächter. They always claim the US government can shut off a country from the internet, he said. "That's utter nonsense."
"Even if the US president has control of the A root server – and he doesn't – deleting the zone files ending on .ru would make no sense at all because this zone file still exists on all the other root and anycast servers," Kleinwächter argued, adding that sending emails might be a few milliseconds slower.
"How would the Americans enforce deleting country zone files for political reasons from the anycast servers in Moscow?" he said. "Such an order from the White House would not be politically counterproductive, it wouldn't work and it would be a joke for the global Internet community."
"There’s no off-switch," said ICANN Chief Technology Officer David Conrad. In theory, he explained, the US government could force ICANN, a US-based firm, to influence the top level domain concerning Russia, for instance to take the .ru from the root server, adding that connections would become more difficult but overall, it would have a limited effect.
The DNS, Conrad said, is based on trust. "If the US government were do anything as crazy" as meddling with the root server, he explained, that trust would be gone, and alternative root servers would crop up. The damage to the internet as a global market place and means of communication would surpass the benefit, he concluded.
Technically, Russia is in the position to set up its own root servers – but it would be difficult to get people to use them, said Kleinwächter. "China, for one, is not likely to follow suit."