Russia’s Internet Plans Are Authoritarian, But Not Yet Isolationist

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While the internet is abuzz with the claim that Russia is trying to “build its own” internet, this statement likely misconstrues and undermines the truly dangerous aspect of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest actions, which is namely: censorship.

Although censorship might be the first step towards a change in internet infrastructure, it’s hardly a sign that they’re building entirely new infrastructure.

All evidence points to something better described as a digital blockade. It’s more descriptive to say that Putin’s real objective is to control access points to internet infrastructure that already exists. On the current digital landscape, Putin likely doesn’t plan to build anything new.  Based on expert opinion, such a task of building his own could prove harder than being the gatekeeper of infrastructure that already exists.

Testing “Sovereign Internet” Blackouts

This past July, the Russian government launched a series of tests of its “sovereign internet” plans. The test entailed shutting off internet access for Russian people to global platforms at large. Although these tests were temporary, they reveal what Putin’s new internet plans really looked like.

Russians were temporarily blocked from accessing Western services, including Google and Wikipedia. Russian websites and platforms were notably still available.

These tests came after Russian internet providers across the country began blocking access to Google News. It’s important to mention, however, that these decisions by the Russian government came after Google and its subsidiary company YouTube demonetized the entire country months before.

Russia Doesn’t Have What China Does

According to Andrew Sullivan, the president of the Internet Society, Russia is not really attempting to build an isolationist internet as many claim. Unlike China or similar countries, Russia’s internet was never built as a self-contained system.

“China connected to the internet very late, very warily, and with an enormous domestic population that is, by policy, culturally pretty similar. And because of China’s enormous domestic addressable market, they were in a position to create completely domestic alternatives to any service offered outside of China.”

According to Sullivan, Russia is stuck trying to be the gatekeeper of the open internet as opposed to building an entirely new infrastructure it controls:

“It seems likely that the conditions do not exist in Russia to replicate China’s path. That doesn’t mean that Russia won’t try. But the path is likely to result in greater resistance in a population that is having something taken away, than what emerged in a population that never had the internet in the first place.”

It will be very hard for Putin to build his own isolationist internet if he tried, which it looks like he’s not doing. But things change.

As a result, only time will tell what the future holds for the future of the web in Russia.