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Russia's road to sovereign internet: from Russian app store to Runet


Growing digital isolation has pushed Russia to introduce a variety of alternatives to Western digital products. But the story about the Kremlin’s ideal of “Russia’s internet” started long before the war.

Russia’s quest to create sovereign internet has only intensified amid the unprecedented number of tech companies leaving or limiting their services within the country. The Kremlin has been actively endorsing any initiative to create domestic digital services in place of Western competitors.

Ukraine has also been lobbying for drastically restricting Russia’s access to the worldwide web as a way of pressuring Putin out of the war. The country’s leaders urged to revoke Russia’s top-level domains such as .ru and the associated Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates. However, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN,) which ensures the network's stable and secure operation, refused to follow through.

“Within our mission, we maintain neutrality and act in support of the global internet. Our mission does not extend to taking punitive actions, issuing sanctions, or restricting access against segments on the internet - regardless of the provocations,” the ICANN's chief executive Goran Marby responded to the request.

Although it seems like Russia won’t be cut off from the internet, the Kremlin has nonetheless already been considering an analog of the Great Firewall of China known as Runet. But is the world really getting closer to a reality of Splinternet – where every country has its own version of the internet?

Runet

Runet is a term that refers to Russia’s sovereign internet space, governed by state rules. The law ordering internet providers to reroute traffic to state-approved exchange points managed by Russia’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, was signed by Putin in 2019. It is meant to maintain the country’s web access in case its servers get cut off from the rest of the world.

Despite the delays in the implementation, Russia furtherly tested the full isolation of Runet in 2021 – the experiment that the Kremlin called “a success.” Unsurprisingly, worries over what this would mean for Russian citizens sprung up: tighter surveillance, increased censorship, full digital control? The road that led to this point hints at the answers with some useful lessons.

Since the early 1990s, Russia has been moving between different versions of the SORM surveillance systems, which was later expanded to intercept internet traffic. In 2000, Vladimir Putin approved the Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation, which included the governance of the online space “for the purposes of social and political stability.”

Later in 2021, around the time of protests to release Alexey Navalny from jail, Putin expressed his view that the internet should prevent children from being drawn into oppositional movements.

With the introduction of a bill into the State Duma in 2018, official talks began around the Russian government’s heavy control over the country’s internet architecture to allow for swift isolation in case of a security incident. The bill was passed in response to “the aggressive nature of the US National Cyber Security Strategy adopted in September 2018.” It included the creation of a national DNS in Russia and the order for Roskomnadzor to maintain stable operations of Runet.

Despite the widespread hesitation that the Kremlin will, after all, decide to isolate the country’s internet, things have changed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During the three months of the war, Russia has blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and international news sites, where users could find information that goes against the state-led rhetoric. Now, Russia seems more pressured than ever to implement its own version of the internet.

However, Runet is unlikely to be a viable option in the nearest future. There is still a variety of technical difficulties surrounding its successful launch. But the Kremlin is paving the way with the introduction of local app stores mimicking their Western rivals.

Russia’s version of Western app stores

Russian analog of Facebook, Vkontakte (VK,) launched a local app store named RuStore, developed for Android with the support of Russia's ministry of digital development, communications and mass media, the country's largest lender Sberbank, cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab, and Russia’s Google’s analog, Yandex.

Minister of communications and media Maksut Shadaev called RuStore “an essential task, dictated by market conditions.”

Kaspersky Lab’s security systems are meant to protect the app store and check uploaded applications for malicious codes.

“At the start of the beta version, more than 100 applications are available to users, including popular VK, Yandex, and Sberbank services, public services, mobile operator applications, marketplaces, games, and much more. The number of apps in the store is growing daily,” the VK’s official statement says.

"I am sure that RuStore will be in demand among both users and developers. It has everything it needs to become the largest Russian app store," said VK CEO Vladimir Kiriyenko.

Another alternative to Google Play, NashStore (directly translated as “Our Store,”) has also become available, allowing users to download, install, update apps and pay for subscriptions.

"Unfortunately, Russians can no longer normally use Google Play to buy apps, and developers have lost their source of income. This is why we have created a Russian app shop, NashStore,” Vladimir Zykov, director of projects at Digital Platforms, which was behind the creation of the platform, explained.

The launch of NashStore was originally planned for May 9, meant to coincide with the national holiday celebrating the Soviet Union's defeat of the Nazis in World War II. This year, the date represents Russia’s aim to “de-Nazificate” Ukraine in what it calls a special operation. The release of the app store should have also signified Russia’s steadfastness in the face of Western sanctions, as well as growing economic and digital isolation.

Right before the official launch, NashStore suffered a DDoS attack and worked with irregularities. In the meantime, Fontanka’s correspondent tested the platform and suggested that it leaves much room for improvement. The journalist cited a limited app library and issues with accessing NashStore, concluding that “Only people with high motivation and unlimited patience can access NashStore.”


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