Russia Test Drives Its “Great Firewall”
17 October, 2019
People attend an opposition rally in Moscow, Russia on March 10, 2019. Participants in the rally are protesting against the bill about sovereign RuNet and censorship on the Internet. EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV

Telecommunications operators in the Russian cities of Ekaterinburg and Tyumen launched equipment for isolating the RuNet in test mode. Using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, the equipment is able to block “forbidden content” – but this “great firewall” might not be as effective as it seems. 

This same type of technology was used in Azerbaijan in 2017 to block opposition news sites and calls via Skype and WhatsApp. But according to experts, DPI technology can be bypassed in just one click of a proxy or VPN. 

As such, experts are suggesting that the real purpose of the experiment is not to actually test the sovereign internet but rather to estimate the costs. Russia has allocated 30 billion roubles (over $467 million) in funding for implementing the so-called “Sovereign Internet Law,” and has plans to spend 20 billion of it on equipment. Whether or not this equipment will work is unclear. 

Test Mode

The experiment in the Urals at the end of September involved all major mobile operators, including MTS, MegaFon, Rostelecom, VimpelCom and others. According to sources who spoke with Hromadske’s partner outlet Novaya Gazeta, the experiment was only carried out at selected sites in each city. In Tyumen, it involved six different locations, including several shopping centers and Tyumen State University. 

Russia’s Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media – known as Roskomnadzor – made the popular messaging app Telegram its main target for blocking. Telegram is widely used as a community organizing tool in Russia and serves as the main communications platform for the political opposition, pro-democracy activists and independent journalists. 

According  to the test participants, the experiment was carried out in a way that’s “imperceptible to users.” And at Tyumen State University, this did turn out to be the case. The block on Telegram went unnoticed among students and teachers, mainly because the app could still be reached. It was available via Wifi, even though the university’s provider is one of the participants in the blocking experiment – Rostelecom. 

READ MORE: Russia’s Failed Attempts At Cracking Down On Telegram

The local department of Roskomnadzor was unable to comment on the outcome of the attempted block, because it was not their test. According to the Deputy of Head of Roskomnadzor in the Tyumen region, Ruslan Dzhumasov, Roskomnadzor’s Moscow employees are entirely responsible for carrying out the experiment.

“All the work is being done without our involvement,” he said at a press briefing on September 25. 

Meanwhile, in Ekaterinburg, the introduction of the “sovereign internet” was marked by unreliable mobile connections. Customers observed minor failures in Megafon’s network operations, but this could have been a coincidence.

Turning Off the Internet

According to telecoms analyst Mikhail Klimarev, DPI technology will not help Russian officials block Telegram in the Urals, or in the country as a whole, because it can be easily circumvented. 

One way of avoiding the block, Klimarev explained, is using “encapsulation” to disguise the data: 

“[Encapsulation] is when one data packet is inserted into another data package,” Klimarev said. “A package with Telegram data can easily be encapsulated in a package with other data that is not prohibited. If you recall, Roskomadzor once accused Telegram of hiding behind other services. That happened, it’s a fact. In order to block Telegram, in such a case, it’s necessary to block the other resources it mimics.” 

Users can also rely on a proxy or VPN to access sites that Roskomnadzor has blocked, and Telegram can easily be updated. According to Klimarev, the only way to actually diable Telegram across the country is for Roskomnadzor to turn off the internet – and this is where the DPI comes in handy.

“With the help [of a DPI], it’s possible to turn off the internet at a particular location for a few minutes,” Klimarev explained. “Right now, Roskomnadzor has to write a letter to internet operators with a request to turn off the internet. That said, you need to find out exactly which operator serves the desired location. This takes at least a day. Now, Roskomnadzor can turn off the internet on its own.” 

While internet blocking experiments have been attempted in cities like Tyumen and Ekaterinburg, a full blown internet outage has yet to be seen. And given the fact that the local Roskomnadzor employees were not allowed to participate in the “great firewall” experiment, it is unclear whether or not one will actually be carried out or not. 

That being said, there are plans to expand the experiment to the Southern Urals, which means DPI technology could soon be tested in other cities like Chelyabinsk and Magnitogorsk. 

“Sovereign Internet Law”

Russia’s movement towards expanding government control of the Internet has provoked an outcry among human rights, media freedom and Internet freedom organizations. In April 2019, Human Rights Watch and nine other groups called on Russian President Vladimir Putin not to sign the so-called “Sovereign Internet Law,” criticizing the bill for undermining rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom.

Putin signed the bill on May 1, 2019, enabling measures like the “great firewall” experiment and targeted blocks on Telegram. 

READ MORE: Without Putin in Mind: What the Russian Protesters Set out to Achieve

The internet test also coincided with another campaign aimed at limiting the Russian public’s exposure to non-government controlled sources of information. 

In the midst of ongoing protests for free elections in Moscow, Deputies from the State Duma urgently created a commission to deal with questions of foreign interference in Russian affairs, which promptly undertook an attack on the German state-owned public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Deputies accused the outlet of quoting the slogan “Moscow, get out!” during the largest demonstration of the summer on July 27 and in doing so, showing “signs of justifying extremism” and undermining state principles.

READ MORE: Inside Moscow’s Courtroom Crackdown: The Case of Activist Konstantin Kotov

Piskarev has also compiled a long list of “suspicious” media outlets, which includes the BBC Russian service, RFE/RL, Voice of America and Meduza. Now, the commission is threatening to take away Deutsche Welle’s accreditation in Russia, meaning that the largest international publication could be banned from working in the country. 

“All independent Russian media – from television to online sites – have almost entirely been purged, leaving only those that share ‘patriotic information,’ in the spirit of the late USSR,” Novaya Gazeta’s Politics Editor, Kirill Martynov, explained. “Now, people are once again listening to Voice of America, although under normal circumstances it would never have occurred to anyone to get local news from foreign broadcasters.”

But with independent media already under threat Russia, the authorities are now moving towards eliminating the voices of the international press. And the “Sovereign Internet Bill” plays a part here too: 

“Deutsche Welle’s audience in Russia is relatively small, and the true goal of Piskarev’s campaign is not to get revenge on the Germans for incorrect quotes,” Martynov said. “The pressure on foreign media is essentially increasing for test purposes on the eve of the entry into force of the ‘Sovereign Internet Law’ – which would enable a ban on something much bigger, like Facebook.” 

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/Adapted by Eilish Hart, with materials from Novaya Gazeta. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange