In a sensational test of technological independence, Russia is making plans to cut off its internet from the rest of the world, with a giant ‘unplugging’ experiment that will affect over 100 million Russian internet users.
The action – which the nation has boasted of doing for years – would be a temporary test, designed to see if an isolated Russian internet can function ‘offline’ in the event of a cyberattack that forcibly disconnects it from foreign servers.
“We are talking about the protection of critical infrastructure, which should be located in the territory of Russia,” German Klimenko, the former internet adviser to Russian president Vladimir Putin, said in 2016.
“There is a high probability of ‘tectonic shifts’ in our relations with the West. Therefore, our task is to adjust the Russian segment of the internet to protect [it] from such scenarios.”
That kind of thinking is now in the process of becoming law, with a draft bill first introduced in December receiving tentative approval from Russian lawmakers last week.
Under the draft legislation, Russian internet providers must execute technical measures in their networks to counter potential threats from foreign aggressors – in effect, insulating the Russian internet (sometimes called Runet) from the rest of the web, and ensuring all traffic is carried on the country’s internal systems.
At the same time, Roskomnadzor – the Russian agency responsible for communications – will gain new powers to control and censor prohibited media on the internet, which currently is done by Russian ISPs independently.
Those behind the initiative say the moves comes in response to the aggression of the US government’s new Cybersecurity Strategy unveiled in September.
“The calls to increase pressure on our country being made in the West oblige us to think about additional ways to protect Russian sovereignty in cyberspace,” Leonid Levin, the chairman of a Russian committee on information technology, said in January.
“Russia’s disconnection from the world wide web is one possible scenario amid the escalation of international tensions.”
But not everybody in Russia is on board with the plan.
Advocates of human rights and internet freedoms say the disconnection threatens to create another technological dystopia akin to the Great Firewall of China.
Even the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs views the extreme measures as more of a threat to the functioning of the Russian internet than any hypothetical foreign cyber-attacks.
“The disconnection of Russia from the global web would mean that we are already at war with everyone,” Russian internet expert Filipp Kulin told the BBC’s Russian language service.
“In this situation we should be thinking how to grow potatoes in a nuclear winter, and not about the internet.”
Despite these reservations, the contentious plan is expected to be enshrined in law soon, and although nobody knows just when the great unplugging will take place, it should happen imminently.
No exact date has been set, but under the draft plan, the disconnection is supposed to happen before April 1.