Note: This story was updated on Dec. 20, 2019.
At his annual press conference on Dec. 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied his government is seeking to restrict internet freedom.
“Free internet and the sovereign internet do not contradict each other,” Putin said, adding that the so-called “sovereign internet law,” which went into effect on Nov. 1, is “aimed only at preventing negative influence in case foreign resources are restricted.”
Putin claimed that authorities are not “moving toward closing off the internet.”
Still, the sovereign internet law requires Russian internet service providers to install equipment capable of identifying and filtering web traffic from outside the country. That would make it theoretically possible for the Russian government to cut off the Russian internet from the rest of the World Wide Web, similar to China’s so-called “Great Firewall.”
However, Russia’s domestic internet – unlike China’s – did not develop based on centralized, state-owned networks. This makes it more difficult to isolate Russia’s internet from the global internet.
While Putin says the new law is necessary to ensure Russia’s internet security should it be cut off from the web by a foreign actor, critics cite numerous examples of internet censorship, including the banning of apps like Telegram, the blocking of hundreds of websites, and criminal prosecutions targeting social media posts. Demonstrations against the sovereign internet law erupted when it was introduced in March, with an estimated 15,000 protesting in Moscow.
In February, Polygraph.info fact-checked a statement by Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s State Duma, who denied that the sovereign internet legislation was aimed at cutting off Russia from the global internet. Instead, he claimed the purpose of the measure was “not to close, not to cut off, but to ensure the security of the internet of the Russian Federation.” Polygraph.info deemed Volodin’s claim “misleading,” based on the fact that the legislation’s provisions gave authorities “unlimited control over access and content.”
Update, Dec. 20, 2019: DefenseOne reported on Thursday that the Russian government plans to cut off some access to the global internet as a test of its new RuNet system on Dec. 23. The information came from internal documents from Russia's Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media, which state that the upcoming exercise was designed to "evaluate the possibility of intercepting subscriber traffic and revealing information about the subscriber, blocking communication services.”