Last week, Vladimir Putin signed off a law which will set the course of Russia’s internet towards a much more autonomous and self-contained infrastructure.
The law will mean the Russian Internet (Runet) would be significantly more secure, and by integrating an alternative domain name system (DNS), it would be able to function if Russia is disconnected from the global network.
This has been Russia’s plan for some time and means that there is much less reliance on foreign networks.
The end goal is for all domestic traffic to be entirely internally routed, eliminating traffic crossing “cyber-borders”.
The stated reason for this is to provide security if nations attempt to disconnect Russia from the world-wide-web.
While it is hard to condemn a nation for striving to autonomy and defensive measures, this could well have severe implications in media and public freedom of speech.
Russia’s state media regulator supports the new law, which ultimately means that more of the Russian web traffic flows through Russian controlled router points.
By controlling the router points internally, Russia can monitor traffic much better.
They are also able to have better control over filters and web blocks, ultimately meaning they can control what comes in and out of the country’s internet.
This threat to freedom is genuine.
The significant risks here are for journalists and their sources.
Journalists have a strict obligation to protect their sources, in doing so they allow a level of trust so that sources continue to provide information.
If whistle-blowers and sources worry that they are being monitored in online connections to journalists, they may be deterred from supplying information.
Consider China’s state-controlled internet, which has very strict blocks on what content its citizens can see.
All references to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 have been blocked, as well as many western sites such as Google and Facebook.
Access to uncontrolled external sites can only be achieved through illegal virtual private network (VPN) software.
With Russia’s recent law that criminalised disrespecting the government, the tightening of internet control leaves a feeling of unease.
Russia already has its search engines and social media, Yandex and VK respectively.
Because they are internal, it is much easier to see what is said on the platforms.
They also mean that if there was a NATO enacted disconnection, or Russia cuts itself off, then the day to day internet usage could remain somewhat unaffected.
Another recent bill prohibited false information or fake news.
This places risk to journalists and websites which publish controversial or critical material.
Much like how the Trump administration has caused widespread debate over what constitutes fake news, the Russian authorities could take views that certain content is fake news when it is merely disagreeable.