Late last month, news broke that Russia is preparing to build an independent Internet infrastructure for BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) – “in the event of global Internet malfunctions”, the Russian news agency, Russia Today, reported on November 28th.
Essentially, Russia is intending to create an alternative to the global Domain Name System (DNS), the Internet’s equivalent of the phone book. Russia Today reported that the initiative was discussed at the Russian Security Council’s October meeting. The council was said to have noted that, “the increased capabilities of western nations to conduct offensive operations in the informational space as well as the increased readiness to exercise these capabilities pose a serious threat to Russia’s security.”
Russia has expressed concerns regarding excessive dependency on global DNS before. In 2014, the Russian Communications Ministry conducted a test in which they simulated switching off global Internet services and relying upon a Russian backup system to support Internet use within Russia. At October’s Security Council meeting (which is Russia most senior consultative body on national security), the council decided to address the issue by creating its own backup system of DNS, which would be used by countries of the BRICS bloc and not be reliant upon control by international organizations.
Back in 2014 following the “switching off” simulation, reporters asked Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov if the government was considering pulling out from the global Internet. “Russia’s disconnection from the global internet is of course out of the question,” Peskov told Interfax news agency. However, the official added that “recently, a fair share of unpredictability is present in the actions of our partners both in the US and the EU, and we [Russia] must be prepared for any turn of events.”
“We all know who the chief administrator of the global internet is. And due to its volatility, we have to think about how to ensure our national security,” said Peskov. It’s not about disconnecting Russia from the World Wide Web, he added, but about “protecting it from possible external influence.”
At the October meeting, President Putin reportedly set a deadline of August 1, 2018, for the task.
The U.S. security community has responded with its own analysis of the news. Security researcher Glyn Moody (of TechDirt) said that adding additional DNS servers won’t be difficult, so there is no reason for the plans not to move ahead, but he pointed out that while it’s true that local DNS servers will provide resilience for the Russian net, “they also make it much easier for a government to limit access to foreign sites by ordering their IP addresses to be blocked — surely another reason for the move”.
Moody also notes that this is the latest proposal in a series by Russia “to wrest control of key aspects of the Internet – such as the DNS system – from international bodies” and cites an earlier example of this being the debate over International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) at the 2012 World Conference on International Communications (WCIT) in Dubai. On this issue, the BRICS nations also backed Russia, which suggests they will also back its latest approach to adopting greater agency over the net with its own alternative to DNS.
Patrick Tucker, technology editor for Defense One, similarly questioned the ulterior motivations behind Russia’s latest move. He too looked back at 2012 and leaked documents from treaty negotiations around revisions to the ITRs, showing Russia demanding a broad UN role in net governance, including addressing and naming. China joined Russia back then in pushing for national governments to have greater control over net governance via the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Similar to today, their arguments were voiced in terms of national security concerns.
However, Tucker points out that, “were DNS to be turned over to the ITU, dictatorships would be able to much better monitor dissidents, stifle dissent, and control the information environment in their countries. For example, Western tech companies could be forced to keep data and servers physically within those countries, and thus become entangled in vast citizen-monitoring programs.”
In 2014, the U.S. government attempted to resolve the issue by announcing it was handing control of the DNS database to a non-governmental international body of stakeholders, relinquishing its own control over some aspects of Internet governance, in order to prevent China and Russia from gaining more influence.
The government agency behind the move, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), put in a clause designed to protect the Internet’s continued operation as a bottom-up and user-driven information source: “NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.” This move was specifically designed to counter government interference in the DNS, and preventing governments from being able to make changes to the database containing the world’s top-level domains.
Furthermore, in 2016, Russia launched its own closed military Internet for top-secret communication, modelled after the U.S. Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System.
Russia’s recent announcement then on its intention to build its own DNS must be viewed in context of its previous actions.
Finally, Tucker also noted another reason for Russia to build its own DNS alternative: “deterrence by denial… If you’ve got a backup internet running that connects you to key nation-state trading partners, you can hack your opponent at less risk of disrupting your own state.”