Russian Duma deputies on Tuesday overwhelmingly supported a bill allowing Russia to create its own autonomous internet. The law will create an independent infrastructure for the Russian internet, or "Runet," which will essentially allow Russia to pull up its virtual drawbridges in case of attack.
A total of 307 lawmakers voted in favor of the law, while only 68 voted against it. In the coming days it will likely be approved by the upper house of parliament — the Federation Council — and signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It will then come into force on November 1, 2019.
The law has consistently received near unanimous backing from Duma deputies. Its authors say Russia's national security is at stake. The project will allow the domestic internet to continue working even when it is disconnected from non-Russian root servers. That means that the country would be prepared should other countries attempt to cut Russia off from the internet.
"If we see that others have the technical capabilities to carry out attacks on the Russian internet then we must have the technical capability to resist those attacks," Andrei Klishas, one of the authors of the law, told DW ahead of the vote. Klishas, a member of the Federation Council, makes no secret of where the authors of the law think the attacks on "Runet" might come from: "We have no doubt that the United States is technically able to turn off the internet wherever they deem it necessary to do so."
The bill itself explicitly states that it aims to counter "the aggressive character of the US strategy on national cybersecurity," a 2018 document that categorizes Russia as one of Washington's "strategic adversaries."
Keeping Russian data in Russia
Many of the technical details of how the law will be put into practice remain unclear — but it aims to regulate the routes of online traffic and define internet exchange points. Russia's national telecom watchdog, Roskomnadzor, will act as the central monitoring organ, essentially taking charge of the internet in case of an attack. All internet providers will report to Roskomnadzor on the flow of their traffic and on their clients, according to the lawmakers.
One of the law's goals is to keep as much of the data exchanged between Russian internet users within the country's borders as possible. This aim may sound like a move to protect Russian users from external threats, but rights groups have warned that the new measures could ultimately be directed at Kremlin critics rather than international adversaries.
The idea of increasing the government's control over the internet is part of a more long-term national policy trend. In 2017, officials said they wanted 95% of internet traffic to be routed locally by 2020. Since 2016, a law has required social networks to store data about Russian users on servers within the country. The law was officially presented as an anti-terrorism measure — but many criticized it as an attempt to control online platforms that can be used to organize anti-government demonstrations.
And communications watchdog Roskomnadzor also has a reputation for cracking down on Kremlin critics. It has been pushing to block encrypted messaging app Telegram, which is used by anyone who tries to avoid Kremlin control, including opposition activists. Media reported last week that the head of Roskomnadzor, Aleksandr Zharov, had said the new law on an autonomous internet would help in the fight against Telegram, which has been unsuccessful so far. The quote was later deleted, according to critical online newspaper Znak.
Another Iron curtain?
"This [new] law simply follows on from the government's increasing attempts to regulate the internet," Aleksandr Isavnin, an activist with the Russian internet freedom project RosKomSvoboda, told DW ahead of the vote. "It continues to increase the influence of the government on the internet and the powers of the intelligence agencies to decide what content is accessible online."
The bill sparked large protests after its first reading in March. Thousands of people took to the streets in the Russian capital, Moscow, chanting "Keep your hands off the internet!" and railing against the creation of what many called a new Iron Curtain, or a "Great Russian Firewall" — a reference to China's internet censorship measures.
At the time, the protest's organizer, Mikhail Svetov, from Russia's Libertarian Party, explained that he believed this new law is just another step in restricting democratic freedoms, such as media freedom and freedom of speech. "If they take away the internet, we won't have anything left at all," he told DW.
Keeping a new 'public space' safe
Government representatives have repeatedly denied that the comparison with internet restrictions in China is justified. Lawmaker Andrei Klishas insists that his new law "doesn't aim to isolate Russia in any way, or shut it off from external sources." He contends that the internet needs to be protected from outside influence because it is increasingly important as a "public space" in modern Russia — and "many infrastructure facilities [in Russia] are connected to the internet."
The speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, insisted this week that it is simply necessary to explain the new law properly to citizens "who are expressing their concern."
"Russia in no way wants to shut itself off, or isolate itself from the world — that would be pointless and impossible," she said.