Digital sovereignty in Russia – A brief overview

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A few articles deal with Russian primary sources and academic literature on the topic of digital sovereignty in Russia. The academic discussion on legal aspects of state sovereignty on the Internet has been taking place in Russia – for a comparatively long time – since the end of the 1990s (Kukkola/Ristolainen 2018 and Stadnik 2021).

In Russia, „cyberspace“ is usually referred to as „information space“ and this concept includes all mass media, not only information and computer technology platforms (Kukkola/Ristolainen 2018). Since the transition to a free market economy and pluralism in the 1990s, the Russian government has seen the Internet as a source of danger or risk. This is primarily related to the gradual granting of non-state-controlled public opinion-forming since the 1980s. Increasingly, access to previously suppressed information was tolerated. In particular, the USA’s information policy, which is perceived as expansive, is perceived as a threat (Nocetti 2015). However, protests in the wake of the Arab Spring and domestic protests prior to the 2011 elections have also ensured that since 2012, the Russian government has steadily increased its capacity to gain national control over information flows and network infrastructure (Jaitner/Rantapelkonen 2013 and Musiani et al 2019).

The basic state perspective is that digital sovereignty is equivalent to conventional territorial sovereignty on land, sea and air. However, difficulties arise in reconciling this national-territorial view with the transnational realities of the Internet in official documents and decisions. Moreover, a blurred line appears in the choice of words, and often no distinction is made between cyberspace as a network of devices and a network of information (Jaitner/Rantapelkonen 2013, 82ff.).

Although there are no official definitions of ‚digital borders‘ in Russian public documents, the idea of delineation is present. Borders are delikate through international, if need be bi- or multilateral, agreements, through territorial state control of information infrastructure, through securitization of information space, and through national laws
Juha Kukkola and Marie Ristolainen

(Kukkola/Ristolainen 2018)

In Santaniello’s model, Russia would be strategically placed in the middle ground between a new multilateralism and Chinese „digital sovereigntism,“ but closer to the Chinese end (Stadnik 2021, 162). At the same time, the conditions in Russia are completely different. China has far fewer Internet providers that need to be brought under state control. The digital market in China is much more developed and can be isolated from the global market more easily than the Russian market. In Russia, such an isolationist policy would have far-reaching economic and technical consequences. At the same time, Russian hardware and software developers do not have the autonomous know-how that their Chinese counterparts have (ibid., 161).

In contrast to Chinese views, however, Russian conceptions of information sovereignty highlight the possible malevolent nature of information, such as extremist content and fake news about state policies.

(ibid., 150)

Through various security doctrines between the years 2000 and 2016, the Internet increasingly advanced to a national security issue in Russia. A hidden militarization of cyberspace took place. Measures were taken to defend the country in the event of conflict, and „information troops“ were established as part of the Russian army. Furthermore, threat reporting was nationalized and centralized and „Computer Emergency Response Teams“ plus other intelligence facilities were created. The dependence on foreign technologies and software products was to be reduced, but this proved difficult in practice. State actors mostly still work with foreign software licenses and the Russian alternatives are far less user-friendly (ibid., 148ff.).

Measures for Internet censorship were established primarily since the phase between 2012 and 2015 and introduced via various legislative procedures. For this purpose, a so-called blacklist of websites was created. This was done under the pretext of protecting the well-being of children and warding off terrorism. Content was then filtered on the basis of this list (ibid., 156ff.). However, this mainly enabled the blocking of independent news sources (Hyland 2020, 17ff.). Furthermore, a law from 2016 obliges all companies that process data of Russian citizens to operate their databases on Russian territory. This parallels the European Union’s approach to data protection. In the event of non-compliance, the services in question were initially blocked in Russia, and later penalties were imposed. However, it is questionable whether these penalties will be paid, as there are no agreements with the legislators of the countries concerned (Stadnik 2021, 157f.).

Russia stands out not only because of its implementation of strict Internet regulations. The government goes far beyond restricting data and content. The goal seems to be the establishment of a separate segment of the Internet (Stadnik 2021, 147 and Jaitner/Rantapelkonen 2013, 82ff.). This is also called „Runet“. It is to exist independently of the global network, but at the same time continue to maintain connections to it. This is based on concerns that the Russian network could experience an external shutdown, which is why a law was passed in 2019 that aims to create a sovereign Russian intranet (Stadnik 2021, 151). In the implementation of Runet, foreign Internet companies are to bow to local Russian Internet regulations (ibid., 148).

You might also be interested in:


Hyland, Jospeh. „Internet Censorship: An Integrative Review of Technologies Employed to Limit Access to the Internet, Monitor User Actions, and their Effects on Culture.“ > 2020. (27.06.2021)

Jaitner, Margarita; Rantapelkonen, Jari. „Russian Struggle for Sovereignty in Cyber Space.“ In: Turunen, Isco (Hg.). Tiede ja Ase 71, 2013, 64-88.

Kukkola, Juha; Ristolainen, Marie. 2018. „Projected territoriality: A case study of the infrastructure of Russian ‚digital boders‘.“ In: Journal of Information Warfare 17 (2), 2018, 83 -100.

Musiani, Francesca; Loveluck, Benjamin, Daucé, Francoise; Ermoshina, Ksenia. „‚Digital sovereignty: can Russia cut off its Internet from the rest of the world?“ < > 2019. (10.04.2021).

Stadnik, Ilona. „Russia – An independent and sovereign internet?“ In: Haggart, Blayne; Tusikov, Natasha; Scholte, Jan Aart (Hrsg.). Power and Authority in Internet Governance – Return of the State? London und New York: Routledge, 2021, 147 – 167.

Nocetti, Julien. „Russia’s ‚dictatorship-of-the-law‘ approach to internet policy.“ < > 2015. (10.04.2021).

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