In Russia, it's the state against the internet

Screenshot of the RussiaPost article, taken with permission

In an interview for the RussiaPost and Global Voices, Mikhail Klimarev, Director of the non-profit organization the Internet Protection Society, founder, and host of the Telegram channel “Za Telecom” talks about how the Russian state blocks the internet, how Russian software developers and Chinese telecom tech giant Huawei are involved in this, and what might happen to Google in Russia.

Global Voices (GV): How would you describe what is going on with the internet in Russia right now?

Mikhail Klimarev (MK): What the Russian authorities are now trying to do on the internet can be simply and straightforwardly called censorship.

The first blocking of the internet in Russia was in 2012, more than a decade ago. At that time, telecom operators were obliged to build a system of blocks themselves at their own expense and had to block internet resources that appeared in a Roskomnadzor register. It worked pretty poorly. Then, in 2017, they started using the Revizor system, which monitors what resources the telecom operator has available, a fairly simple development of the Russian company MFI-Soft from Nizhny Novgorod. It was installed by the operators, and pretending to be a subscriber, it requested resources in Roskomnadzor’s register of prohibited materials. If they were available, then the operator was issued a fine. But when Telegram began to be blocked in 2018, this system proved completely ineffective. They unsuccessfully tried to block Telegram for a year and a half, and after that, apparently, they thought about how to make these blocks more effective, and in the winter of 2020 they adopted the law on a sovereign Runet.

GV: What do the Russian authorities mean when they talk about a sovereign Runet, and how are they trying to build it?

MK: What a sovereign Runet is, no one still really understands. In the view of the Russian authorities, it apparently means destroying all the bad guys and rewarding all ‘our guys’.

Technical Means for Countering Threats (TSPU). This device looks at every data packet that passes through the networks of the telecom operator, and decides what to block and what not to. I’m oversimplifying so as not to get too technical.

GV: Are there any keywords for which resources or pages are blocked?

MK: No, it is not keywords. It is impossible to block keywords in the modern Runet, simply because now approximately 97 percent of all Internet traffic is encrypted. This can only be done on individual platforms — like VK and Odnoklassniki.

GV: Then what is the difference between Russian and Chinese censorship?

MK: The main difference between the Chinese Internet and the Russian Internet is its architectural structure. They do not block anything inside China. In China, they simply control companies that operate in this market within the country. Since it is a monopoly market, it is easier to do everything. China has something like three large telecom operators. There are 3,500 in Russia — a huge difference.

The Great Firewall separates the Chinese Internet from the rest of the internet. In other words, all cables from the three Chinese telecom operators arrive at one point. In ten cities, data centers have been built, and cables from foreign telecom operators are connected to them. These data centers sit right in between the Chinese internet, ChinaNet, and the worldwide internet. That’s where they filter the data, and really complex solutions are used, quite interesting in terms of algorithms and so on.

In Russia, it is the same, only a smaller copy of this Chinese airbus is with every operator. Not all 3,500 operators, because it’s an expensive thing, but I think around 350.

GV: Who delivered these solutions in Russia, and do they continue to update them? Are these companies under sanctions? What happens if they stop updating them? Can this censorship system continue to work?

MK: Roskomnadzor also has such a group, a center for monitoring and managing the public communication network, which deals with this. And an outfit was created called Data: Processing and Automation Center, which operates, builds all these nodes for them. It was created exclusively for this project, and it is not known who owns what, some front people are there.

They build these nodes, bring in the equipment, install, configure, and design. Because it is at different telecom operators, you need different types of very simplified interfaces. And the complex itself consists of servers. Of course, they should be subjected to various sanctions, up to and including destruction.

And the software is developed for them by a Russian company RDP, which was not so long ago acquired by Rostelecom. It was originally named differently and made equipment for telecom operators, and was itself a telecom operator. To replace expensive imported equipment, based on literally ordinary computers, they began to make routers. They managed to create one of the best products, entered the blocking market with it and Rostelecom bought them.

In addition, TSPU includes telecommunications equipment, also made in China, and switches, which are manufactured by Eltex from Novosibirsk. Naturally, equipment for the switches is also ordered from different suppliers from China and Taiwan. For example, motherboards, power supplies, network modules, and interfaces. Then everything is assembled into the device, firmware and software are installed, tested, and packaged by the company itself.

And the servers are supplied by Huawei.

GV: So, the blocks will work as long as Huawei supplies and maintains the servers, the Russian company updates the software, and China and Taiwan supply components for the rest of the equipment?

MK: Everything will work, yes. Servers of this class are under sanctions, they cannot be supplied. But China supplies them. And moreover, through Huawei, directly. This is open information. For 2022, they delivered about USD 100 million worth of servers. And for the purposes of blocking the Internet in Russia.

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