Russia’s internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, can by law demand that Russia’s internet service providers (ISPs) block content or don’t complete traffic requests. They can reroute internet traffic away from sites that Roskomnadzor deems unsuitable for everyday Russians, essentially cutting any individual browser off from the rest of the world. However, Russia has more than 3,000 ISPs, which implement diktats at different speeds. “Everybody’s left to their own devices to figure out how to comply with the government order to block the BBC or something,” says Madory. Each ISP also uses different methods to try and block access to websites that the Russian media regulator says are forbidden, with varying levels of success. “Depending on the technique they adopt, circumventing the block can be easier or harder,” says Maria Xynou, with the internet censorship nonprofit the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI).
Most commonly, Russian ISPs reset user connections as they try to access websites, leaving them trapped in a frustrating loop of unfulfilled requests. That happens by effectively hijacking a request from a web browser to access a website. “By resetting your connection, they’re preventing you from connecting to the intended website or service,” says Xynou. There are other blocking techniques used by Russia. One stops TLS connections, the cryptographic mechanism that governs most internet connections, which in turn blocks access to specific websites. Another method involves delivering block notices to users trying to access a website by manipulating the Domain Name System, or DNS, which is essentially the phonebook of the internet. If a browser can’t access this phonebook, it can’t load a website.
The system can work, but has its flaws. “When censorship is so decentralized, it does mean that it ends up being way less effective than if it were implemented in a centralized way,” says Xynou. Russia has made some steps toward trying to rectify that, but in recent history it has struggled to implement nationwide blocks or bars on websites deemed unsavory. That’s because of the way Russian internet infrastructure works.
“Russia’s internet ecosystem is badly embedded into the global one,” says Alena Epifanova, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy nonprofit, who has studied Russia’s internet censorship and infrastructure. “We see a lot of foreign companies involved in running their infrastructure, from telecommunications to data delivery networks.” That includes Nokia, whose hardware reportedly powers SORM, Russia’s vast social media snooping operation.
Seemingly aware of this, Russia has made some progress in untangling itself from the global internet infrastructure—an action that would enable it to exert more complete control over the flow of information. “The whole thing is about control of information,” says Epifanova. “They fear information.”