There have been interesting reports from both the technical and political perspectives during the past week that Russia ran tests intended to see if it could cut itself off from the World Wide Web.
Andrei Semerikov, general director of a Russian service provider called Er Telecom, said Russia’s ministry of communications and Roskomnadzor, the national internet regulator, ordered communications hubs run by the main Russian internet providers to block traffic to foreign communications channels by using a traffic control system called DPI.
Deep packet inspection, or DPI, is when a system peers within a packet to determine its characteristics. It can be used to identify senders and intended receivers or perform key functions such as traffic shaping and can prioritize traffic (e.g., giving time-sensitive voice packets priority over packets carrying email data).
The story said that the Russians were testing whether they could run the country’s Internet access infrastructure—informally called Runet—in isolation from the rest of the world. The experiment failed because smaller operators, which don’t have DPI, couldn’t be switched off. These smaller networks represent more than half of the Russian Internet infrastructure.
The story says that an earlier test was aimed at determining if the Russian system could continue if disconnected from the broader Internet. The goal of the test, which reportedly was ordered by Vladimir Putin, was to determine what would happen if Russia was cut off due to sanctions over its endeavors in Crimea.
In 2012, Wired described the power of DPI and how it found its way into the Russian telecommunications infrastructure. The piece, which is credited to Agentura.Ru, CitizenLab and Privacy International, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, said that a law that was passed on July 28, 2012 and became effective on November 1 of that year established a strong layer of censorship. DPI is said to be the only way of carrying out the law’s mandates. This was clearly a first step to the tests this year.
Controlling information is a huge issue, particularly in nations without democratic institutions. This month, Slate excerpted Borogan and Soldatov’s book, which is entitled “The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.” The section posted at Slate made no mention of the recent tests, but dealt with the same basic question: What can a totalitarian system do to control information in the age of overwhelming connectivity? Here is how the excerpt ends:
In times of political stability, when the message is under the state’s control and the public believes in propaganda, the Internet as technology cannot do much. But then a crisis comes, of any kind—political, economic, or even a natural disaster—and it provokes the users to generate the content. The authorities have no means to stop them, unless they switch off the Internet completely.
The bottom line is that technologies such as DPI are potent, but not the final answer. The authorities will be able to slow down communications—but not stop it.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.