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Russia is risking the creation of a “splinternet”—and it could be irreversible

If Russia disconnects from—or is booted from— the internet’s governing bodies, the internet may never be the same again for any of us.

March 17, 2022
Ms Tech

Russia’s disconnection from the online services of the West has been as abrupt and complete as its disconnection from real-world global trade routes.

Facebook has been blocked entirely by Russian authorities, while Twitter is almost completely cut off. Many more companies have voluntarily withdrawn from the Russian market—including Apple, Microsoft, TikTok, Netflix, and others. Russia is rapidly joining the likes of Iran as a digital pariah state.

The European Union, in turn, is seeking to all but wipe certain Russian outlets from the internet—with guidance on new bans of state-owned RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik suggesting that not only should the sites be blocked, but that search engines and social networks should hide delete any post repeating content from said sites.

But all these are just services that use the internet, rather than the technologies or agreements that power it. Facebook being blocked in a country is basically no different than Facebook withdrawing from a country, or simply going bust or shutting down.

But more profound splits are on the cards—provoked by action on both sides. Russia has declared Meta (owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) to be an “extremist organization” and is withdrawing from international governance bodies such as the Council of Europe and has been suspended from the European Broadcasting Union. If such moves were replicated with the internet’s governing bodies, the results could be seismic. 

The moves have raised fears of a “splinternet” (or Balkanized internet), in which instead of the single global internet we have today, we have a number of national or regional networks that don’t speak to one another and perhaps even operate using incompatible technologies. 

That would spell the end of the internet as a single global communications technology—and perhaps not only temporarily. China and Iran still use the same internet technology as the US and Europe—even if they have access to only some of its services. If such countries set up rival governance bodies and a rival network, only the mutual agreement of all the world’s major nations could rebuild it. The era of a connected world would be over.

There have been some moves toward this kind of action already. Last month the Ukrainian government called on ICANN, which oversees the internet’s domain name system, to suspend Russia’s access to the system—effectively removing “.ru” sites from the internet.

ICANN, which was once an offshoot of the US Department of Commerce but now operates as a nongovernmental organization, roundly rejected the proposal.

"[T]he internet is a decentralized system. No one actor has the ability to control it or shut it down," wrote CEO Gorän Marby in his response to the proposal. “Essentially, ICANN has been built to ensure that the Internet works, not for its coordination role to be used to stop it from working."

Marby’s caution is warranted. ICANN has no power in law or statute over the domain-name system—its decisions are accepted voluntarily by all internet operators. That makes its decision-making ponderously slow (everything must be agreed by consensus) but works to hold the internet together.

The internet’s other governing bodies work in much the same way—they are independent international bodies that work by agreement, not by force. Almost everyone agrees this is a strange and clunky way to run a piece of vital global infrastructure, but no one can agree on a better alternative. 

Trying to agree on new governance for the internet would require the agreement of the world’s nations—something so rare as to be nonexistent in the 21st century. But that does mean the internet is held together by little more than mutual voluntary agreement.

So what would a real splinternet look like in practice? And how close are we to it?

An actual splintering of the internet—rather than different countries using different platforms on the same underlying architecture—could take one of two forms, according to Milton Mueller of the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“A major, serious splintering of the internet would involve a technically incompatible protocol used by a critical mass of the world's population,” he says. 

This first type of splintering would not be catastrophic. “Technologists would probably find a way to bridge the two protocols in short order,” says Mueller.

The second form of splintering would be to continue using technically compatible protocols, but to have different governing bodies managing those services.  This might prove trickier to reverse.

If Russia, China, or some other countries formed rivals to the bodies that manage IP addresses and DNS and got them established, that could be even harder to put back together than if they built rival technological protocols. Vested interests would form, wanting to stay with one or the other body, making the politics of reconnection almost impossible. 

The problem of reconnecting these disparate networks into one global internet would thus be a political one, not a technical one—but it’s often the political problems that are the most difficult to solve.

There are also steps short of a full splintering of the internet that could still have a significant effect on hampering the global flow of information—or the proper functioning of the internet in a pariah state.

Because of the nature of the internet to create monopolies, some services have a quasi-infrastructure type status. Amazon Web Services, for example, runs so much of the back end of the internet that banning it from a particular territory creates major headaches. Similarly, cutting off access to github repositories would paralyse a lot of services, at least temporarily.

Russia has been seeking to mitigate this risk among official and public sites, trying to require them to repatriate their data, use .ru domains, and minimize the use of overseas service providers. For a time during the panic of the week, some took this to be an instruction to all Russian websites, even leading to alarmist (but so far unevidenced) articles suggesting that Russia planned to cut itself off from the internet entirely.

Other countries and groups have sought to mitigate the global nature of the internet—and not just autocracies. The EU has been seeking to require all data processed on its citizens to be processed within its borders, a move US tech giants have been fiercely resisting.

Iran, meanwhile, has built up national connections between its key online institutions, enabling it to operate a sort of Iran-only functional internet should it either need to close itself off from the global network or if it got kicked off by an adversary.

But it is China that has perhaps the most famously complex relationship with the internet. While Chinese-born tech companies often thrive in the West—just look at TikTok—almost all online services used by people within China are Chinese companies. The country also operates a huge and regular form of online censorship, typically referred to as the Great Firewall of China.

Charlie Smith* (a pseudonym owing to operating in China and being critical of its censorship policies) of GreatFire, which tracks censorship on the Chinese internet, says its relationship to the global internet has changed over time.

“At first, the service-level blocking was driven by pure censorship needs. The need to hide information about Xi Jinping, or cover up some major disaster that could be directly blamed on the government,” he says. “But as those foreign websites got blocked, Chinese entrepreneurs realised that there were gaps in the market that could be filled.

“Not only did they fill those gaps, they helped to create Chinese internet companies that are as valuable as their Western counterparts, even though these Chinese companies might not be well-established outside of China.”

Thanks to these long-standing separate institutions, Smith argues that China could manage being cut off from the internet—but it’s largely not in its interests to do so.

“I think China could cut itself off from the global internet and likely would if there were a big enough domestic crisis … [but] I do believe that China will continue to rely on the global internet. The Chinese diaspora is everywhere in the world. Nobody wants connections to home cut off. Businesses will still rely on selling their products overseas.”

China is, instead, taking senior positions on the internet’s various governing bodies—as befits a country with more than a billion internet users—and is trying for now to slowly bend the standards, rules, and protocols to suit itself.

A splinternet remains very possible—driven by politics rather than technology—but for now, everyone seems keen to hold on and try to nudge the fragile status quo in their favor, not least because it seems that were the internet allowed to fracture, it could prove impossible to repair.

James Ball is the global editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and author of "The Tangled Web We Weave: Inside the Shadow System That Shapes the Internet"

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