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A Closer Look at the "Sovereign Runet" Law

Ilona Stadnik

In December 2018, a bill on the "stable operation" of the Russian segment of the Internet was introduced and got the title "Sovereign Runet" in mass media and among the public. It was adopted after 5 months later, despite doubts about the technical feasibility of its implementation. The law is very ambitious in its intent to simultaneously control Internet traffic and protect Runet from some external threats, but legislators still have no idea how it would actually work.

This is not the first attempt of Russian legislators to take control of the Internet within the state borders. The previous bill was initiated by the Ministry of Communications (MoC) in 2014. Then it was proposed to describe the elements of the critical information infrastructure of the Runet, to establish control over traffic exchange points and cross-border communication lines. The main element of the first bill was the creation of a state information system that contains a copy of databases with traffic exchange points, autonomous system numbers (ASN), allocation of IP addresses and routing policies. The state information system should be used by the Russian telecom operators when routing national traffic. But this "national Internet" just means making a copy of the existing RIPE NCC databases. And that makes no technical sense because the data requires constant updates to keep the actual routing information (See my recent paper "Sovereign RUnet: What does it mean"?)

The discussion of the 2014 bill continued for 2 years; a lot of amendments were made to it. The latest activity on it was observed in January 2018, when the press referred to new edits that took into account the opinion of the telecom industry. Ultimately, a kind of compromise was reached but the bill was never submitted to the State Duma for debate and approval. Instead, a new bill was introduced in December 2018 by two senators and one deputy. None of them are directly connected to the Internet infrastructure issues. Obviously, such a move was chosen to launch the consideration of the bill in the State Duma as soon as possible, and to avoid additional coordination with other relevant ministries and the security service, as happened to the MoC bill.

According to anonymous sources (former MoC employees), the main interested party in the adoption of both bills is the Security Council. In 2014, after the start of anti-Russian sanctions and problems with the operation of Internet services in Crimea, the main task was to ensure the stability and security of the Russian segment of the Internet. Other interlocutors recalled even 2006-2007, when people in the Security Council and Administration of the President were preoccupied with the likelihood of an external Internet shutdown. They took seriously the prospect that the U.S. could unilaterally disable Russia's DNS. That is why Russia had been consistently taking initiatives to transfer ICANN's functions to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and still continues to criticize ICANN for being a US-based corporation.

Another concern was the circulation of Russian Internet traffic. Some high-ranking officials believed that a lot of Russian traffic loops through foreign networks. This did actually happen in the early 2000s, because of the low cost of such routes and competition between ISPs. But people from the Administration, inspired by several ideologues from Roskomnadzor (RKN, the communications supervisory agency) exploited this story: loop traffic is unacceptable because foreign intelligence can spy on our traffic or snatch it and replace it with something else. Exactly the same reasons were heard from the deputies and senators advocating for the new bill in 2019, as will be shown below.

Another interested party became RKN, since this supervisory agency got very broad powers to block prohibited Internet resources in 2012. In particular, the system of blocking built by RKN created DNS vulnerabilities that are regularly exploited.1 Finally, RKN's failure to block Telegram messenger became a reputational blow for the agency. As part of RKN's attempts to execute the law, on peak days in April 2018 entire subnets of IP addresses were blocked, reaching 18 million records in the blacklist. It negatively affected the work of many third-party services and Internet businesses. So RKN's interest in a new law that empowers it to control and filter all traffic, is obvious.

What's in the adopted law?

On May 1 2019 the new law was signed by President Putin. In total, only 5 months have passed since the first introduction of the bill and only 6 more months remain until its entry into force on November 1, 2019. Amazing speed! The content and focus of law, after all the debates, is not very different from its first December draft, except for several additions. Basically, the document contains amendments to two existing laws "on Communications" and "on Information", and these are summarized and commented upon in this document.

In brief, the law sets the following:

  • The main subjects responsible for stable operation of the Internet in Russia are telecom operators and owners and/or proprietors of: (1) technical communication networks (used for operations of transport/energy and other infrastructures, not connected to the public communication network), (2) traffic exchange points, (3)communication lines crossing the state border and (4) autonomous system numbers (ASN). RKN will keep registries for the last three categories. All subjects must participate in the regular exercises for the stable Runet.
  • RKN will execute the centralized management of communication networks in the event of threats to the stability and security of the Runet, by defining routing policies for telecom operators and other subjects and coordinating their connections.
  • Telecom operators are required to ensure the installation in their networks of technical means for countering threats to the stability, security and integrity of Internet operation on the territory of Russia. These technical means will also serve the purpose of traffic filtering and blocking access to prohibited Internet resources.
  • The law creates a Center for monitoring and control of public communication networks under the RKN supervision.
  • The law creates a national domain name system

The debate over the law

Based on the statements of deputies and senators during the readings of the bill (3 in the State Duma and 1 in the Federation Council), the motivation for its adoption can be summarized in several points. The main motive is that this law is a response to the latest US cybersecurity strategy, where the Russian lawmakers saw a direct threat to Russian networks in a statement to use offensive capabilities to protect US networks and interests in cyberspace. The speed of the law's adoption was justified by its critical meaning for implementation of the national program "Digital Economy" that highly depends on the Internet.

"Obviously, it is necessary to protect the digital lifestyle of Russians; in this regard, it is necessary to ensure the stability of the main services of Runet and the reliability of Russian Internet resources, and this requires a national infrastructure that can protect Runet in the event of a threat of blocking the connection to the root servers placed abroad." — Ms. Arshinova, Deputy from the United Russia party.

The co-author of the law Mr. Lugovoy, Deputy from the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, frightened his colleagues with the controversial case of an Internet shutdown in Syria in November 2012, which he attributed to the special operations of the US National Security Agency. Another argument to adopt the law was the analogy with sanctions by international payment systems in Crimea in 2014 when Russia had to elaborate its own national payment system "МИР" to avoid financial collapse. And finally, some deputies still believe that foreign loop traffic must be "reduced significantly" according to the "Digital Economy program."

"The bill has already been called the law on autonomous, sovereign Runet, but if you look closely at the proposed changes, there is no separation of Runet or turning it into a closed system that does not communicate with the global Internet. The bill is not aimed at isolation at all — it is about ensuring the smooth functioning of our economy and other spheres of society, and most importantly, protecting the rights of Russian citizens who adhere to the digital lifestyle” — Ms. Arshinova, Deputy from the United Russia party.

The other co-author of the law, Senator Mr. Klishas claimed that technically Russia can be disconnected from the Internet root servers. But he didn't take into account that the governance of critical Internet infrastructure requires trust and cooperation amongst all involved stakeholders. To say that American companies (namely ICANN and Verisign) can immediately "cut out" records of Russian domains by the order of the US government is a major misconception. If ICANN sets such a precedent, the credibility of this organization will be lost forever — and it threatens the resilience of the Internet as a whole if there is no authoritative center for the coordination of the domain name space. There could be a rollback to the 80-90s, when various large regional networks coexisted. If we talk in terms of American interests, this is the last thing the US government wants to do, because it directly contradicts its policy of globalization and the spread of the Internet around the globe.

Nevertheless, representatives from the opposition parties asked tricky questions and conveyed the concerns of society about the real censorship nature of the law. Firstly, they demanded that the bill's advocates name the threats from which the law is supposed to protect the Runet. The law should reflect all these threats because they directly relate to the constitutional right of our citizens to access reliable information.

"The list of threats, as the authors tell us, they will determine during the exercises — wow! Imagine, colleagues, if we were to report our bills in the following way: we do not know what will happen, we will say after the experiment, so you first pass the law, and then we will conduct exercises. Will you conduct exercises on people? You can't do that, colleagues” — Mr. Nilov, deputy form the Just Russia party.

Another point of critique was the absence of responsibility for network crashes that may happen during centralized management by RKN. The law removes responsibility from operators, but there is no transfer of it. Operators can only ask RKN about anomalies in their networks, that is all.

"Whatever this bill may be called, its main purpose is to control the cross-border information flows. What for? In order to restrict this very information, the flow of this very information — there can be no doubts or illusions. They say, all this is done exclusively for the public good — for the good it would be enough to duplicate domain infrastructure, it could be carried out even without making appropriate changes to the law, it could be done at the level of Roskomnadzor or the Ministry of Communications. So, the bill is extremely restrictive, and it is also an attempt to force the execution of those laws which we adopted earlier” — Mr. Kurinnyi, deputy from the Communist party of Russia.

By the last sentence, the deputy implied the complete failure of RKN to block Telegram messenger, as well as to compel foreign companies like Twitter and Facebook to localize the personal data of Russian citizens.

"Now we are asked to adopt in the first reading the draft law on the protection of "something from something". And where are the guarantees that the next step, which will determine the Government, will not be the transformation of the currently public Internet into such a corporate intranet, limited by the borders of the Russian Federation?" — Mr. Yushchenko, deputy from the Communist party of Russia.

Other deputies paid attention to the creation of a point of failure for the Runet — the Center for monitoring and control of public communication networks. If there is a single control center, it is easy to break it and disrupt Runet at once. Finally, deputies were angry about the budget issue. Initially, the financial justification of the bill claimed that "adoption and implementation of the Federal Law will not require expenditures from the federal budget." But then it became known that the money was already allocated to the budget of the national program Digital Economy — 20,8 billion rubles to purchase the equipment to counter threats, 4,5 billion rubles for national DNS and 5,5 billion rubles to develop necessary hard and software.

"You know, colleagues, I have not seen such a brazen and cynical bill, which you push forward, saying that it won't require even a ruble from the budget. We have a government like Nostradamus: the government, adopting the draft budget last year, already assumed that three cranks (two from the Federation Council and one from the State Duma) will introduce this year this bill, and has already saved some money for it!" — Mr. Ivanov, deputy from the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia.

Even before the first reading happened in the State Duma in February, measures in the bill were greeted negatively by the technical community, while the broader IT industry took an ambiguous position supporting but slightly criticizing the bill. It is known that there was only one expert meeting, organized by the State Duma Committee on information policy, information technologies and communications in January. It gathered representatives from IT business and telecom, public organizations and authorities. Some transcripts of the conversations were leaked to social media. Together, of the 33 speakers, 13 were clearly against or had serious objections to the bill — the "Big 3" telecom operators MTS, VimpelCom, and MegaFon (with Rostelecom predictably supporting the bill), the Association of Computer and IT Enterprises (which represents participants of the digital economy in Russia), the Association of Documentary Telecommunication (in 2017 it conducted the study of loopback traffic in Russia and proved its insignificant share), the Technical Center of Internet, Coordination Center for TLD .RU, the Russian Association of Electronic Communications and Regional public organization "Center of Internet-technologies."

Industry was concerned with these issues:

  • The "black boxes" — the technical means to counter threats provided to telecom operators by RKN — will dramatically affect the quality of communication. It is obvious from the law because operators are even immunized from responsibility for future network crashes. Also, the law does not cover the cost of their installation and maintenance, nor take into consideration the development and growth of networks — operators will have to spend billions of rubles on that, which will slow down their development and growth.
  • Legislators mixed up technical and content-based threats. It is impossible to solve both problems with one "black box."
  • The issue of duplication of critical elements of the Internet infrastructure and domain names has already been agreed with the industry last year. Several representatives of telecom industry recalled the bill mentioned in the beginning of the post. They were curious why legislators decided not to push the adoption of the previous bill while there was a consensus with industry, but instead invented a new document and added an ambitious aim to filter all Runet traffic.

Anyway, despite the substantial criticism, the law was adopted. Legislators couldn't provide adequate answers on the resilience of the technical means and even lied that they won't degrade the quality of communication. The recent case with Yandex illustrates the argument. In March 2019, when attackers conducted a DNS attack on several large Russian Internet-resources, one of the main victims became Yandex. That was exactly that type of attack that exploits the vulnerability in the RKN blocking system which I explained above. As a result of the attack, a few small operators blocked access to some IP addresses of Yandex, and large operators who use DPI systems to block content were forced to pass all traffic to Yandex services through DPI. It significantly reduced the speed of access to Yandex services for users. Yandex repelled the attack for several days. "The blocking of sites was avoided, but the attack did not go unnoticed: active users of the company's services noticed a decrease in the speed of access to them," the company representative said. The case clearly illustrates the perspectives of traffic inspection on a large scale in future — the equipment won't cope with bandwidth.

What's now?

What will happen during the 5 months before the law comes into force? The MoC, the Government and RKN are required to prepare 30 by-laws (you can track their readiness here) which should fill in the blind spots in the text of the law. Specifically, they will need to:

  • Make a list of the threats to the Runet and the principles of centralized traffic management
  • Define the technical parameters and rules governing the "black boxes"
  • Define how the registry of traffic exchange points will be formed
  • Define rules for providing information from operators and owners of ASN for filling in various information systems,
  • Figure out how the national DNS will work
  • Establish a Center for monitoring and control of the public communications network. (It is noteworthy that the resolution on its creation was signed by the Government in February 2019, before the adoption of the law. The Center should start working by January 2020.)

Concluding thoughts

Analysis of the law leaves the impression that it was written by people who do not understand the way the Internet works and are relying on a mental model of telephone communications. Moreover, they appear to blindly believe in the omnipotence of "black boxes" that will filter traffic and protect Runet from unknown threats on a national scale.

With this first impression, it seems like the law is primarily aimed at censorship under the cover of national security. Companies who don't comply with laws that require decryption or localization of users' messages, and continue to operate in Russia, such as Twitter, Facebook and Telegram, have damaged the reputation of RKN. The government cannot allow these companies to continue to fail to execute its decisions anymore.

Of course, one can agree that the resiliency of the Internet in the country is a serious concern and should be addressed in some way, but the measures offered by this law don't solve those problems; on the contrary they can degrade the quality of access and make Runet more vulnerable than it is now by centralizing management of public networks.

More likely this law will share the fate of the anti-terrorist amendments known as the "Yarovaya package," which required service providers to store the content of voice calls, data, images and text messages for 6 months, and the metadata of communications for 3 years. It came into force in October 2018, but since then none of the service providers execute data retention, simply because they do not possess the necessary equipment needed to store such enormous amounts of data. Moreover, there is still no ready-made suitable solution on the market for this purpose. And government is still fighting to establish the requirement to use only national technological solutions.

One can imagine how much work will be needed to develop the traffic management equipment to support the RKN Center for monitoring and control of public networks, and the systems supporting a national DNS. It is therefore highly unlikely that those 30 by-laws needed to clarify the technical requirements will be issued by the 1st of November 2019. On the contrary, it will probably take several years to complete.

However, the upcoming field testing of DPI solutions by RKN will gradually reveal the insanity of its idea to fully control all traffic in the country. End users and especially businesses will need to be prepared for service interruptions; "without a declaration of war," access to some "legitimate" Internet services will be denied. Well, it's good, if such problems would be immediately acknowledged by RKN and rolled back, but who will compensate the businesses for the losses? That's why optimists simply crossed their fingers, held their breath and waited for telecom to sabotage the execution of the law or find a way to comply formally on paper, without actually doing so. Moreover, there is nothing to execute yet — practical steps are awaiting to be defined in future.

Originally published in the Internet Governance Project.

By Ilona Stadnik, Ph.D. candidate at the Saint-Petersburg State University
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