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The Russian government is planning to isolate the country’s Internet to facilitate censorship and security measures. How is this going to work?

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A Rostelekom data processing center in Novosibirsk.
A Rostelekom data processing center in Novosibirsk.
Alexander Kryazhev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

The bill

Russian Senator Andrey Klishas has proposed the Internet isolation plan as an amendment to an existing Russian communications law. His amendment would require all online services that operate in Russia to install specialized equipment that would enable them to block websites banned by the Russian government with greater efficiency. That technology would necessarily make the Russian segment of the World Wide Web independent from the rest of the global network. Klishas and his co-sponsors have justified the bill on the grounds that it would enhance Russia’s ability to withstand external cyberattacks.

The latest on Russian online censorship

Will it pass?

While the bill has reliable support within the Russian government, its authors threw public debate on the issue into confusion when they promised that Russia’s Internet could be isolated without any additional allocation of funds. The day before the bill was due to undergo its first reading in the State Duma, official government comments on the bill disputed that claim.

Klishas responded by arguing that “[Russian] budgetary law already includes funding that could be directed toward the realization of the measures proposed in the bill — namely, the creation of a Monitoring and Direction Center for Public Online Networks.” In an interview with the Govorit Moskva (Moscow Speaks) radio station, Klishas explained, “The Information Security Act, which the government has already approved, includes funding for the present proposal — more than 20 billion rubles [$302.8 million].”

However, the wire service Interfax noted that only 1.8 billion rubles ($27.2 million) spread over the course of three years have been allocated in the Russian budget to establish the Monitoring Center.

So is it 1.8 billion or 20 billion?

It’s both! Let’s start with the 1.8 billion rubles allocated for “the establishment and functioning of a Monitoring and Direction Center for Public Online Networks.” That line can be found in Russia’s three-year budget for 2019-2021, which was approved by the State Duma in November 2018. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the Center was created not for Klishas’s proposed isolation project but rather for the purpose of coordinating regulations from Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s censorship agency.

All that said, the decision to create the Center was actually made more than a year ago, well before Klishas’s bill was first introduced. The Center was in fact part of the Information Security Act that the Russian government approved in December of 2017. Klishas is correct in saying that the government set aside 22.3 billion rubles for that plan for the years 2018-2020.

The catch is that when the 22-billion-ruble plan was approved, only 491 million rubles ($7.4 million), not 1.8 billion, were allocated to the Monitoring Center. Even that funding was nonexistent in the original version of the bill; it was added before the Duma’s second reading.

So that means Russia does have the funds to isolate its Internet?

No. Neither the Monitoring Center’s 1.8 billion rubles nor the 22 billion allocated to information security more broadly will cover what Andrey Klishas wants to accomplish in his bill. The government’s comments on the proposal point out three areas that will require additional funding no bill or politician has yet proposed:

  • devices for online traffic control,
  • the Monitoring Center’s role in the isolation project specifically, and
  • workshops to help Internet service providers disconnect from the global Internet.

Even though the Information Security Act does mention the Center and the workshops, it does not include funding for the complete isolation of the Russian sector of the Internet. Its goal was only to decrease the proportion of Russian Internet traffic that passes through networks abroad to 10 percent by 2024. Lyudmila Bokova, Klishas’s co-sponsor for the bill, nonetheless supported his argument that the funds for their proposal would come from the Information Security Act and “Roskomnadzor’s internal resources.” Bokova also acknowledged that she did not know how much the proposal would cost and suggested that the question could wait for the Duma’s second reading of the bill.

In conclusion

Judging by its reception overall, it is very likely that the Duma will approve Klishas’s proposal. However, the amount of funding that bill will require is still not definitively known. All we have are numbers that were fixed before this bill was introduced and therefore do not speak to it in any way. The Russian government has correctly noted that the bill’s sponsors have not offered any form of financial backing for their plan. State auditors added in their own comments that “the realization of this project would cause an increase in the price of goods and services on the Russian market, which could risk increasing budget outlays at all levels [of government].”

A council of experts appointed by the government gave its own cost estimate for Klishas’s bill a month ago. Its statement indicated that isolating Russia’s Internet could cost 25 billion rubles (more than $378 million) up front and an additional 134 billion rubles (more than $2 billion) annually to compensate Internet service providers for increased operating costs.

Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Hilah Kohen