After six years of unabated attack on Internet freedoms in Russia, the Kremlin is making another bold step. The Duma in first lecture adopted a new law that can cut off the Russian internet from the world wide web. Almost 75 percent voted in favour of a bill that allows the government to seal off the country, by installing special equipment all over the country. Security specialist Andrei Soldatov reports.

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Duma vote in first lecture in favour of new internet-law.

by Andrei Soldatov

A few years ago, I walked into a nineteen-story high rise, surrounded by a fence, in an otherwise residential district of southwest Moscow. At first glance the building could be mistaken for an average apartment block, but only twelve of the floors had windows.

This building was in fact the heart of the Russian Internet: the phone station M9, containing a crucial Internet exchange point known as MSK-IX. Nearly half of Russia’s Internet traffic passed through this structure every day. Yellow and gray fiber-optic cables snake through the rooms and hang in coils from the ceilings, connecting servers and boxes between the racks and between floors.

Each floor was protected by a thick metal door, accessible only to those with a special card. I had that card, thanks to the help of some engineers, who agreed to help me in doing research for my book The Red Web: The Kremlin Wars on the Internet.

Big black boxes

I knew that on the eighth floor there was a room occupied by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the KGB. But the FSB’s presence was evident on all floors. Between the communications racks in the building stood a few black electronic boxes the size of an old VHS video player. They were marked SORM, and they allowed the FSB officers in the room on the eighth floor to have access to all of Russia’s Internet traffic – the boxes mirror the traffic to the FSB.

I spotted one of the boxes with a small green lamp blinking. I knew that similar SORM-marked boxes, connected to the local branches of the FSB, were installed all over the country on the premises of Russian Internet Service providers, being part of the wide-scale Russian surveillance effort. They were there since the late 1990s.

Back then I thought that these boxes looked both strikingly inefficient and old-fashionably Soviet. In the building, built in 1979 and turned into a major Internet exchange point, Russian secret agents were sitting in a room surrounded by boxes like VHS players as an important part of the effort to control the Internet in Russia. How much information could they read or watch, let alone analyze? But that was not the point, the point was that every telecom operator present in the building was required to have this black box – its personal communication with the secret service.

Only to censor?

I couldn’t imagine then that four and a half years later, in early 2019, Russian policymakers would decide to exchange these boxes for much bigger and more powerful equipment.

The new boxes, soon to be installed on MSK-IX and elsewhere, have two major objectives. First, they will be able to block everything the Kremlin finds illegal – to censor the Internet, essentially. That objective is to be carried out on a permanent basis, 24/7. Second, the boxes make it possible to cut off the Russian Internet from the outside world. 

According to Kremlin design, this possibility has to be activated when the Russian authorities feel that they are under threat of political unrest or rebellion. All these boxes will be connected to a powerful ‘Center of Governance and Monitoring’, created specifically for that purpose and run by the Russian Internet censorship agency.

These boxes, along with the Center, are to be installed as implementation of the strategy to assert the country’s ‘digital sovereignty’ – essentially to give the Kremlin the power to have a decisive say on what is posted on the Internet within Russia's borders. The Kremlin just introduced digital sovereignty legislation to the Duma.

When fully approved (few believe it will not be), every Russian internet service provider and Internet exchange point will have to install the new government boxes.

When put in place, these boxes mark a new era in the Russian government’s effort to control the internet.