Russian Twitter users noticed something odd when trying to access the service on March 4: they couldn’t. For the past six days, anyone trying to access Twitter from Russia has seen their internet speed creepingly slow, no matter how fast their connection is. Then came the power outage.
Twitter’s going offline showed how seriously the Russian state was taking social media’s role in fueling dissent over the country’s invasion of Ukraine. And it demonstrated Russia’s progress in creating a “splInternet,” a move that would effectively decouple the country from the rest of the world’s Internet infrastructure. Such a move would allow Russia to more tightly control talks and stifle dissent – and it’s getting closer by the day.
The gold standard of digital walled gardens is China, which has managed to differentiate itself from the rest of the digital world with great success – although people are still navigating the Great Firewall. “I think they would strive for it [mimic China]says Doug Madory of Kentik, a San Francisco-based internet surveillance company, about Russia. “But it wasn’t easy for the Chinese.” China hired a large number of technology experts to create its version of the Internet and spent huge sums of money on it. By 2001, the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development estimated China $20 billion spent on censoring telecom devices every year. The famous Great Firewall is just that: a firewall that inspects every traffic entering Chinese cyberspace and checks it against a blacklist. Most Internet traffic to China goes through three bottlenecks that block unwanted content. Copying the Chinese approach in Russia is something Madory believes may be beyond the reach of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I don’t think Russia has invested that kind of energy in engineering resources to replicate it,” says Madory. “There are some countries that would like to have what China has, but they just can’t. You don’t have the people for it. There is still a long way to go before Russia becomes like China.”
Even if Russia had the people, building barriers into a relatively open internet infrastructure built over decades is far from easy. Controlling a country’s internet requires two main components: to separate itself from the rest of the world and to cut off access from within. “A lot of things happen on both sides of the ledger,” says Madory. But both are more difficult for Russia than for China because, after years of conflict with the West, it assumes that the Internet will be comparatively open. (By contrast, China has been almost shut down since people first logged on to the Internet, following a February 1996 decree that gave the state absolute control over its design and a ban on “inciting the overthrow of the government or the socialist system ‘ – meaning it was inherently isolated.)
Russia’s internet regulator Roskomnadzor can by law require Russian internet service providers (ISPs) to block content or not serve traffic requests. They can divert internet traffic from sites Roskomnadzor deems inappropriate for ordinary Russians, essentially cutting off every single browser from the rest of the world. However, Russia has more than 3,000 ISPs, which convert dictations at different speeds. “Everyone has to be on their own how to comply with the government order to block the BBC or something,” says Madory. Every ISP also uses different methods trying to block access to websites banned by Russia’s media regulator, with varying degrees of success. “Depending on the technology used, it can be easier or more difficult to circumvent the block,” says Maria Xynou of the non-profit Internet censorship Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI).
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