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​Why Russia is planning to briefly disconnect from the internet

An upcoming experiment will test how well the nation can function on its internal internet.

(Photo: ALEXANDER UTKIN/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Russia hopes to find out how smoothly it could transition to a self-contained internet in the event foreign actors tried to disconnect the nation from the rest of the internet.
  • The experiment will reportedly occur before April 1.
  • Russia's attempts to bolster its local internet infrastructure come in the wake of other nations accusing it of executing cyber attacks.

Russia plans to briefly disconnect itself from global internet servers as part of an upcoming experiment designed to see how well the nation can function on its own self-contained internet.

The test is designed to provide feedback on a recently proposed law, dubbed the Digital Economy National Program, which aims to bolster the self-sufficiency of Russian internet space. Under the law, Russian internet providers would be forced to implement the technical means necessary to reroute internet traffic to local, state-approved exchange points in the event a foreign actor tries to disrupt Russia's connection to global servers, according to a report from ZDNet. The Russian government will cover the costs of the test, which will reportedly occur before April 1.

Some Russian internet providers have expressed concern over the disconnect test, citing the probability that many citizens won't be able to access crucial services. Those worries seem reasonable in light of a 2016 study, published by the Center for Technology Innovation (CTI) at Brookings, that showed how countries can lose hundreds of millions of dollars and put citizens at risk during short-term internet disconnections.

"Shutting down access to popular services or to the whole internet — even for a short period of time — undermines economic growth, puts lives in jeopardy, separates people from friends and family, and erodes confidence in the governments that take such drastic and ill-advised steps," wrote Darrell M. West, the founding director of the CTI at Brookings.

​Why Russia wants to conduct a disconnect test

Russia has for years been exploring ways to beef up its internal internet. In 2010, for example, the nation launched its own operating system to wean government computers off Microsoft products. In 2017, Russia announced plans to create its own Domain Name System — essentially the phonebook through which internet domain names are catalogued — for itself and several other nations.

It's no wonder that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's called the internet a CIA project, wants to reduce his country's reliance on global internet infrastructure: NATO and its allies have repeatedly accused Russia of executing cyberattacks, and they've threatened retaliation if those attacks persist. Building a self-contained internet is almost surely a preemptive and cautionary move that would, at least theoretically, protect Russia in the event of serious cyber warfare.

​Russian internet censorship

Russia's plan to force ISPs to route all traffic through exchange points managed by Roskomnazor, the nation's telecom watchdog, possibly signals a desire of the Kremlin to build a censored and surveilled internet system. After all, Russia recently began requiring ISPs to store data on all users for at least six months, and it's tried to force American tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, to store data inside the nation so state officials can demand for it to be handed over.

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