This paper aims at shedding some light on digital locks inserted by the Russian government in the Russian Internet infrastructure to control online content. Research on this topic has been limited to the case of website blocking. This control strategy, introduced in 2012 and developed into quite an extensive blacklisting legislation, allows the Russian government to block content for Russian users by blacklisting websites and ordering Internet service providers to deny access to them. The effect of this digital lock may be, to some extent, questioned by the fact that in practice, although illegal, blocking can be circumvented through VPN (virtual private network) channels. Although researchers and human rights advocates have assessed this practice as significantly limiting free expression on the Russian Internet, website blocking follows one of the general requirements set in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights that any interference in the free expression must be prescribed by law. This paper inquires whether Russia respects this international law norm in other unstudied cases. The research focuses on the case of domain name blocking.
Following Internet infrastructure-centric theories developed by Internet governance scholarship (Klein, DeNardis, Musiani), this paper emphasizes the vulnerability of online content to being controlled through Internet infrastructural points, for instance, the Domain Name System (DNS). This system is usually compared to a “telephone book” containing names of websites and corresponding numbers that a user should dial to access to the relevant website. Removing a name from this book—domain name denial—means that a website does not exist any more in the domain name space. Consequently, VPN circumvention is useless: a user cannot access content published on this website. The paper explains the governance of the DNS and domain name denial in Russia. The paper looks at the Coordination Center for top-level domains RU and РФ—an organization governing the DNS of the Russian Internet. By quantitative content analysis of the list of this organization’s stakeholders, the paper finds out that after 2015 the Russian government may control the organization by allying with stakeholders loyal to the Kremlin. This alliance might allow the government to use domain name blocking as a form of domain name denial to block The Daily Stormer website in August 2017. This paper discusses this example and explains the domain name blocking practice by the qualitative content analysis of the Rules on Domain Name Registration in Russia and the Coordination Center’s public reports.
This paper concludes that domain name blocking, in contrast to website blocking, does not have a clear legal framework but rather relies on private-public arrangements between the government and the Coordination Center. In disrespect for international law, the Russian government placed domain name blocking in a grey area, which opens a way for technically efficient arbitrary censorship. Moreover, the control over the Russian Internet’s DNS and domain name blocking significantly contribute to Russia’s recent policy on digital sovereignty.