Report: Russia Is Building an Internet “Off Switch”

by Tracy Knauer •

Could Russia be pursuing a policy of “Internet sovereignty” that would allow the government to isolate the country’s Internet users from the rest of the world at will? That’s what Newsweek suggests in a recent report on Russian online censorship.

As the article notes, Internet censorship in Russia has increased steadily in recent years as the government has moved to rein in the growing number of people with broadband Internet access. Sites have been blocked and authorities have paid Internet users to create content that praises the government.

Russia has also enacted a law that will require companies to store data on Internet users using servers inside the country. That will facilitate government censorship, while also discouraging foreign Internet companies from operating in Russia. The new law takes effect January 1, 2016.

And in the most interesting part of the report, Newsweek suggests that the Russian government is “looking for an Internet ‘off switch’” that it can use to disable online services at will. Toward that end, the government reportedly experimented last month with solutions for segmenting Russian Internet users from the rest of the Web.

The government has denied such reports. But given the other online censorship activities of Russian authorities, attempts to isolate Russia’s Internet would not be out of character.

Circumventing Censorship in Russia

If there’s a bright side to the current state of Internet censorship in Russia, it’s that there is so far little evidence that the government is working to prevent tools like Tor or VPNs from working in the country. Russian authorities denounced Tor earlier this year, but — unlike their counterparts in China — they have apparently not invested in the technology that would actually block Tor, or even VPNs.

That means that — at least for now — basic solutions for circumventing online censorship should continue to work in Russia.

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