As you may have heard, Russia recently announced a plan to run a “test” by which it would disconnect from the internet:
Russia is considering a plan to temporarily disconnect from the Internet as a way to gauge how the country’s cyberdefenses would fare in the face of foreign aggression, according to Russian media.
The general idea behind this is to see what would happen if other countries (such as the US…) decided to try to cut Russia off from the internet:
The bill would require Internet providers to make sure they can operate if foreign countries attempt to isolate the Runet, or Russian Internet. It was introduced after the White House published its 2018 National Security Strategy, which attributed cyberattacks on the United States to Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
As part of the experiment, communications oversight agency Roskomnadzor would examine whether data transmitted between Russia’s users can remain in the country without being rerouted to servers abroad, where it could be subjected to interception.
Of course, this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Over the past few years, Russia has made a bunch of fairly significant moves leading up to this. In 2014, it passed a new law demanding that user data remain on Russian soil, and threatened multiple US companies for failing to do so. Also, almost exactly two years ago, a top Putin adviser hinted at a similar plan to experiment with disconnecting the country from the internet to see how resilient a domestic Russian internet would be.
So the real question is whether or not this would actually work. Wired has a pretty thorough analysis of just how difficult this might prove for Russia:
“What we have seen so far is that it tends to be much harder to turn off the internet, once you built a resilient internet infrastructure, than you’d think,” says Andrew Sullivan, CEO of Internet Society, a nonprofit that promotes the open development of the internet.
The process by which it would do so remains challenging. “In short, Russia would need to do two things: Ensure that the content Russians seek to access is actually located somewhere in the country, and ensure that routing and exchanges could all occur domestically,” says Nicole Starosielski a professor at New York University and author of The Undersea Network.
No matter how much Russia has prepared, however, unanticipated issues will almost certainly arise if it tries to dissever from the rest of the world. “I’m absolutely sure that’s the case. It may not break from the perspective of their major infrastructure grinding to a halt, but that’s a risk that they’re taking,” says Paul Barford, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies computer networking. It’s difficult for internet service providers to know precisely how reliant they are on every piece of infrastructure outside their borders. “Because of the complexity across all levels of the protocol stack, there could be catastrophic failures somewhere,” says Barford.
There’s a lot more in the Wired piece, but it certainly suggests that Russia might find it more difficult than it expects — but I guess that’s the reason why the country is considering this as a “test,” rather than finding out how well it works out of necessity at some later date. To some extent, this sounds like a nation-state level experiment along the lines of Kashmir Hill’s recently journalistic experiment in cutting out the various tech giants, which alone proved to be significantly harder than most people would have expected.
There is, of course, a larger point here. The value and importance of the internet is built quite heavily into the fact that it is a borderless, global network that allows information sharing and communication nearly anywhere. There have, obviously, been some limited challenges to that (China being the most notable), but it still remains mostly true. There have been increasing fears of a “fragmenting” internet, and Russia toying with this “test” only drives home how real that fragmentation may become in the very near future.