Aydar Guzairov: 'The task of sovereign internet can be solved no earlier than in two years in Russia'

The founder of Innostage — about whether social networks can be blocked in Russia, why YouTube is not in danger, whether there was a hacker attack from the United States, and why we need a sovereign internet

Aydar Guzairov: 'The task of sovereign internet can be solved no earlier than in two years in Russia'
Photo: Maksim Platonov

In the past week, the Russian online space was again “shaken”: Roskomnadzor slowed down the work of Twitter, and at the same time, the websites of many Russian state bodies collapsed. About whether the scheme of blocking social networks in Russia is viable, whether the parties will be able to agree with each other (and on what), why one shouldn't worry about YouTube, and why a strong state needs a sovereign Internet — read in the interview with Aydar Guzairov, the head of the IT company Innostage, with Realnoe Vremya.

“The level of technology is such that social networks can be blocked completely”

Aydar, why did Roskomnadzor attack Twitter? After all, this is not the most popular social network in Russia. Has it turn out to be the most principled and did not compromise with our authorities?

You have already started to answer this question yourself — this social network, according to our estimates, is really small: in Russia, it has only about a million users.

I think Roskomnadzor just conducted an experiment, and it was working out some regulatory, technical tools. With the help of these tools, they are going to exert some pressure on social networks to force them to engage in dialogue and to comply with the demands put forward by the authorities.

Twitter turned out to be the most “painless” platform for such experiments. Although from the point of view of politicisation, Twitter is the most scandalous network. Both in Russia and in the world: we remember how the account of Donald Trump was simply deleted from there.

In your opinion, is a dialogue between the authorities and foreign social networks about content even possible? Maybe is it already underway? And if not, what's ahead? Real blocking of Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube?

Given the coverage of these social networks, it would be strange if this dialogue was not conducted. Speaking from the point of view of an information security specialist, now the level of technology is such that it will be quite possible to block and restrict access to social networks, including through VPN channels.

VPN — it's not a panacea, and one shouldn't think that here we can easily bypass the block. There is the example of China, which in the late 1990s began to move in this direction — now it is a kind of model for many countries. The example of China suggests that technical restrictions at the state level are feasible. Therefore, the Russian authorities, using the example of Twitter, are working out the mechanics in order to have the technical ability to regulate the activities of social networks. If they succeed in this (and I believe that sooner or later this will happen), they will have strong arguments for social networks to engage them in a dialogue. Of course, Twitter is not so interested in Russia from the point of view of commerce, but YouTube and Facebook will try to find a compromise with the authorities.

But you will agree, it is difficult to believe in the upcoming blocking of the most popular networks: we are still not a China with a rigid system of power. Blocking the same YouTube can cause huge resentment and greatly reduce the ratings of the authorities. As many experts said, Russia was already too late with such a measure — it should have been done 20 years ago, and then in 2021 it would have been easier to avoid popular outrage. Do you agree with this point?

You're right: the Internet of the late 1990s and the year 2021 are two different things. The integration of our society and businesses into the global network and services is extremely high. And it's not just social media. Yes, on the one hand, it has become easier — we can adopt the best practices of China. But in order to “un-ring that bell”, you need to think very seriously — this is not the easiest task. I want to believe that in Russia there will be no total blocking of sites or social networks, but, again, it is technically possible, although the work will take not a month or a year. It's a long way to go.

I want to believe that in Russia there will be no total blocking of sites or social networks, but, I repeat, it is technically possible, although the work will take not a month or a year. It's a long way to go

“Users of social networks should be taught to digital hygiene”

In the meantime, the ineffectiveness of blocking in the fight against illegal content has been demonstrated by Telegram. In 2017, Roskomnadzor failed to block it, as a result, the messenger was left alone. A few months ago, the agency even started its own channel in Telegram. At the same time, there was no information that Durov provided the keys to data encryption. What does this mean politically? Doesn't this mean that some agreements have been reached behind the scenes?

We can assume that the state did not have the technical readiness to block Telegram. Perhaps, the story with Durov's social network had a serious social connotation (after all, there are significantly more Telegram users than Twitter has). It can be assumed that Durov could have made arrangements with the authorities — perhaps, he did not provide them with the encryption keys, but he still conducts some regulatory activities in the network.

Or did the authorities make sure that there was no serious danger from Telegram?

The norms of the civilized society in which we live should also flow into the digital world. As a layman, I am concerned about the stuffing in social networks related to child suicide. I understand that all this is real, that it is possible to control public opinion and rock the situation, and such content is prohibited in a civilized society.

We do not see such messages on the street, and we do not say that we are restricted in our freedoms — this is a certain social norm. And I am in favour of such norms being projected into the digital world.

But groups about child suicides are about VKontakte, not about Twitter or Facebook. At the same time, there is no question of blocking VK.

It is possible that Twitter does not engage in a dialogue with the authorities in principle, and this is the root cause. VKontakte, most likely, is in close interaction with them. And the censorship that we are talking about is more expected in VK.

I would like to hope that we will see censorship in a good sense — directed against suicidal intentions or, for example, against child pornography.

Of course, in a good way — we, as users of social networks, still need to be accustomed to digital hygiene, this is an important issue of changing habits. The etiquette that we all followed from childhood was given to us by previous generations, and the formation of a “digital etiquette” is already our task to be solved now.

In social networks, there is no etiquette, you can say. Since the late 1990s, social networks have been a place of irresponsible communication, people can write and publish almost anything. And this is a serious public problem. It's not even a matter of censorship, but of basic politeness.

I think when people start to realise that they can't hide behind virtual characters and are personally responsible for their actions on the Web, it will seriously change the agenda of what is published on the networks.

The etiquette that we all followed from childhood was given to us by previous generations, and the formation of a “digital etiquette” is already our task to be solved now. There is no etiquette in social networks

“We do not believe that there were attacks on state websites”

When Roskomnadzor began to slow down the work of Twitter, as we know, the sites of many state institutions collapsed. How ridiculous is it to assume that this is the answer of American hackers?

Yes, we have seen that the networks are beginning to shake the situation, an attempt to manipulate public opinion. But, in our opinion, it was quite clumsy work, an amateur level.

We do not believe that there were attacks on state websites — we believe that there were some technical problems. I don't want to offend my colleagues from Rostelecom, but perhaps, it was the introduction of technical restrictions for Twitter that led to technical work. Perhaps, there was a human factor somewhere.

Why do we believe that there were no hacker attacks? Because to block such a large number of resources, it is necessary to conduct a DDoS attack — when a huge amount of traffic is routed to the resource. And it is impossible to do this completely unnoticed — after all, all operators somehow monitor the state of their systems, their networks. Besides, there are a number of agencies that work in the information security system, and they would record all these abnormal activities. In general, nothing happened here — these were technical problems, and they were eliminated.

But the American government allegedly threatened us with cyber attacks, didn't it?

The guys from our SOC found the original source — a publication in The New York Times, translated this article and found out: it is not about mass attacks on the Russian Internet structure, because this would mean an Internet war, and this is a rather serious political step. And I do not think that such a step is necessary for the United States. On the other hand, if we look at the problems of information security, we must say directly that there are no absolutely secure systems in the world right now.

Here we are now communicating with you using smartphones connected to the Internet, and our two devices are already in an aggressive environment. This means that hackers can potentially reach them — which, in principle, probably happens to some people. Many people have mobile banking clients, which means that you are of interest to an Internet hacker who can get into your smartphone and steal your money.

Back to the issue of cyberattacks — hackers spend huge money to investigate the systems they attack. Especially if we are talking about state-level systems in Russia. We can talk about huge investments, about large human resources, and I do not think that hackers from the special services will just want to demonstrate their strength and discover their loopholes and finds in which they made “backdoors”. I would rather believe that hackers save their tools for some x-hour, when there will be something serious. This may be, God forbid, a cyber war or a situation where cybercriminals decide to sell the vulnerability found for a lot of money. But doing it all ostentatiously, even for free? In this case, I just don't understand: for what?

I do not think that hackers from the special services will simply want to demonstrate their strength and discover their loopholes and finds in which they have made “backdoors”. I would rather believe that hackers save their tools for some x-hour, when there will be something serious

“If YouTube is taken away from the people, then another application will definitely fill this vacuum”

How to treat the talks that after Twitter the authorities will come for YouTube?

This is most likely a manipulation of public opinion. Let's go back to the situation with Twitter — after all, the problems with it have not affected many people. Even, I think, its users themselves were little affected by all this. I don't even understand how to measure whether a resource has slowed down or not. After all, the specifics of Twitter are short messages that are difficult to regulate somewhere.

But, you know, people are always interested in saying, “Look what's going on with Twitter! This will definitely happen with YouTube!”, because such conclusions will immediately cause a response in the hearts. Again, platforms like YouTube will definitely seek to find a compromise with the Russian authorities.

Look, what did the closure of Internet borders in China lead to? WhatsApp is very popular in Russia, and the Chinese have created WeChat instead — a wonderful messenger, more efficient and productive, it has a greater number of services than Telegram and WhatsApp. In an artificially limited environment, the Chinese raised a serious competitor, who soon “went to the world”. Perhaps, the same prerequisites were with AliExpress, which, probably, is now very much ahead of the American service Amazon.

I believe that it is easier for the commercially interested services such as YouTube to implement reasonable censorship — the one that we have already discussed, some ethical rules. Perhaps, YouTube will benefit more from such censorship.

Is it possible to assume that Russia will be able to make its own YouTube if something goes wrong? For example, our VK is more popular than Facebook, and Yandex is not particularly inferior to Google?

Technically, it's possible. If YouTube is taken away from the people, then another application will definitely fill this vacuum, but now YouTube suits a lot of people, including me. And I have no intention of looking for any alternative to it.

YouTube is too important a platform for the economic interests of Russians to close it.

Yes, it is highly commercialised. And since money is the main incentive for YouTube to develop, they will negotiate with the authorities and make reasonable concessions. There will be no serious restrictions. I don't see any reason to panic or worry, but we need to monitor the situation.

If YouTube is taken away from the people, then another application will definitely fill this vacuum, but now YouTube suits a lot of people, including me

“If the state wants to be strong, it must have the possibility of online independence”

How do you think, how alive is the idea of introducing a sovereign internet in Russia and is it time to worry that this will be the way to close the Network we are familiar with?

Steps in this direction will be made. But it is precisely in order to have an alternative, and not in order to close off from the whole world — this is on the one hand. On the other hand, we have already tried to report something and demonstrate that we can do it. But the experiment, which was conducted by the ministry of finance in 2019, ended unsuccessfully. China's precedent proves that a sovereign internet is possible. From a technical point of view, in Russia, such a task can be solved no earlier than in two years.

If the state wants to be strong, it must be able to introduce Internet independence, especially when it comes to external threats. The residents of the country must have the opportunity to contact each other by e-mail, in social networks, messengers — and not depend on external factors. But this does not mean that we will have a new “iron curtain”, that it will be a purely local network within Russia. There will simply be a strengthening of the Russian position in the Internet space.

In a sense, the sovereign Internet is an opportunity for the development of its own Internet projects within Russia at a privileged level. This is like the experience with import substitution — by refusing to purchase American software and hardware, we are seeing a boom in IT companies in Russia. They produce a lot of products, and what is very important — they are beginning to be sold outside of Russia. Here we can draw analogies with sports: the more prestigious the domestic competitions in the country, the better the athletes perform at international competitions. In this sense, we have a way to go.

By Sergey Kochnev. Photo: Maksim Platonov
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