Kremlin seeks more control over internet in Russia

Russia is taking steps to tighten its grip on the internet within its borders, as the nation’s legislature advanced legislation this week that would test temporarily disconnecting Russia from the global internet.

The first version of the bill was approved by the legislature on Tuesday. It still has two more steps to go before it gets final approval.

The bill would require that all internet traffic move through servers physically based in Russia. And it will expand the state-run communications office to oversee that routing.


In a separate move, the Kremlin has also announced that it is planning to build its own version of the Domain Name System (DNS), the records systems used for the internet to direct users to specific domains for websites.

Both decisions are raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill.

“I think it’s rich that Russia is that concerned about” cyberattacks, said Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersFive questions about Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan Congress brings back corrupt, costly, and inequitably earmarks Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Others labeled it an attempt to crack down on Russian citizens’ internet access.

“The United States should condemn any action by Russia to tighten government control of the internet and prop up its authoritarian regime,” Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBad jobs report amplifies GOP cries to end 0 benefits boost Putting a price on privacy: Ending police data purchases Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states MORE (D-Ore.) said in a statement to The Hill.

“The Trump Administration needs a strategy for addressing barriers to free speech and commerce online, from China’s Great Firewall to the latest threat from Russia,” he added.

Russia has been a leading aggressor in cyberspace.

In a threat assessment released last month, the Office of Director of National Intelligence labeled Russia a “highly capable and effective adversary, integrating cyber espionage, attack, and influence operations to achieve its political and military objectives.”

Gen. Paul Nakasone, the director of U.S. Cyber Command, said in testimony before a Senate committee on Thursday that Russia “certainly provides a very sophisticated threat to our nation,” adding that they had been a threat for several years.

Russian media has described the policy as at least partly in response to the U.S.’s new cyber strategy, which was released last year. National security adviser John Bolton said at the time of the strategy’s launch that the United States would take on a more offensive posture in cyberspace.

And the U.S. reportedly began its first offensive cyber operations ahead of last year's midterm elections, letting Russian hackers know that American officials were aware of who they were and of their actions.

Lt. Col. Colin Smith, an Engineer & Eurasia Foreign Area Officer in the Marine Corps who has served in Moscow, said that even as Russians act aggressively in cyberspace, they are likely just as wary of a potential attack stemming from a western country like the United States.

Smith, who is the senior military fellow for the Center for New American Security, said that as the Kremlin orders the offensive cyber operations, officials are discovering that they suffer from the same vulnerabilities that they’re exploiting in American systems.

“It’s more the mindset of Russia that if they see a vulnerability in a way that they would attack an adversary, they also need to defend against it,” Smith said.

And he said that Russia is probably “jealous” of and tracking to catch up with China, which has had a tight hold over its internet.

Jake Braun, a Department of Homeland Security liaison in the Obama White House, said that it would be technically feasible for Russian to at least temporarily disconnect from the internet, but that it could cause significant damage to its economy.

Braun, who is now the executive director of the University of Chicago’s Cyber Policy Initiative and an organizer of the DEFCON Voting Village, said that Moscow is likely realizing just how open they are to the same cyberattacks the nation’s cyber actors are carrying out against others.

“All their stuff is connected to the internet, they’re realizing how much of a security challenge that makes for them,” Braun said, noting that the U.S. suffers from the same issue. If a bad actor is able to access one network, it becomes easier for them to infiltrate any others linked to that original network.

Still, he said that Russia may be causing more harm to itself by taking themselves off the global internet than they would suffer from U.S. retaliation in cyberspace.

“Russia is sitting there punching themselves in the face so we don’t have to,” Braun said.