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Great Russian Firewall? Inside Moscow's Internet Overhaul

Kremlin policy under discussion could mean censorship.
Kremlin policy under discussion could mean censorship.
Vladislav Noviy, Anna Balashova, Denis Skorobogatko and Roman Rozhkov

MOSCOW — Russia’s deteriorating relationship with the West could lead to a complete restructuring of Internet policy in the country, Kommersant has learned.

The Kremlin is currently holding internal discussions about instituting complex methods for tightening the control over Internet access providers. This means filtering content at all levels of content, forbidding the registration of .ru and .rf domain names outside of the Russian Federation, and forbidding local and regional networks from sending data to Internet networks outside of the country.

Under such a system, the government would wield unlimited powers to apply censorship, both experts and Internet operators say. It would also mean unavoidable increases in price and decreases in quality of online access for customers.

Kommersant first learned about this proposed digital control policy from a well-placed source involved in the Russian telecommunications market. It was confirmed by a federal official and two managers of Internet provider companies. According to our sources, the proposal is being hammered out by a work group that is part of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to the proposal that Kommersant saw, Russia would like to create three network levels: local, regional and national. Then it would forbid regional and local networks from sending information internationally. Content would be subject to “filters” at all levels, and it would be illegal to have DNS servers for domains that end in .ru or .rf (Russia’s two domains) registered outside of Russia. In addition, the working group has suggested doing away with the current domain center that handles registration of .ru and .rf domains and giving that responsibility to a government agency.

Representatives from large Russian Internet companies say that the institution of content filtration and a hierarchical network system would lead many smaller and foreign operators to leave the market.

One source say that currently there isn't any content filtration, but that the government is already considering limiting access to illegal and pirated content. “It’s possible that they are talking about limiting content in a certain language, like English, for example,” says the source. “But if that’s the case, this proposal violates Russian constitutional rights of access to information.”

Setting up this network hierarchy would also mean restructuring the network in Russia, which would require all operators to spend a huge amount of money. It would be expensive to establish DNS servers in Russia. Right now, most DNS servers are in the United States, with some others located in Germany and China.

A hierarchical structure for the Russian Internet would lead to higher costs for Russian consumers as well as a decrease in the quality of Internet access, because operators would no longer be able to determine the best route for traffic, another source says. Meanwhile, a ban on registering .ru and .rf domains from certain geographic areas would simply make people stop registering those domains.

The government also wants to force Internet providers to rebroadcast television programs, but sources say that’s impossible, since part of the Russian telecommunications infrastructure is still analog. Having a government agency translating web addresses into IP addresses and back, as the proposal suggests, would essentially “cut the country off from the Internet,” one expert tells Kommersant.

Safety measures?

Andrei Kolesnikov, coordination center diretor for the .ru and .rf domains, mentioned that most DNS servers are outside of Russia, but that is the case because it is usually the fastest way to serve requests from Russian users.

“If the proposal to move all DNS servers into Russia is adopted, it would allow Russia to isolate itself if there was a conflict, to limit the information available on the Internet in Russia,” he says. “To a large extent, that would mean restricting online traffic coming from outside of Russia into Russia, not necessarily the other way around.”

Kolesnikov is surprised at the suggestion that the coordination center might be abolished and its functions taken over by the government. “A representative from the Telecommunications Ministry sits on our board, and has veto power. In the whole time that we have been active, the government has never had any complaints,” he says.

But Denis Richka, a representative of Adado Telecom, says there are many positive elements in the proposal, such as allowing the law to be updated for modern technology.

Large Russian Internet companies have been expecting new regulations. Last week, Putin said that the Internet was developed as a special project of the CIA and continues to be developed as part of the American secret services. Since most traffic goes through servers located in the United States, where all Internet traffic is monitored, the Russian president considers it important that the major Russian online resources be all physically located in Russia.

Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov tells Kommersant that he hadn’t heard of the working group. “I don’t think that those kinds of primitive tactics would work. The real task is to protect our national interests, but without decreasing the rate of development, without putting downward pressure on the competitive environment. It’s not possible to have effective development and competition under a monopoly,” Peskov says.

Top representatives of several major Russian Internet companies, as well as the Ministry of Telecommunications, all refused to comment.

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Indigenous Women Of Ecuador Set Example For Sustainable Agriculture

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Photo of women walking in Ecuador

Women walking in Guangaje Ecuador

Camila Albuja

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