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Splinternet: Is Russia Planning To Disconnect From World Wide Web?

Russia has refuted the claims, but recent developments don't bode well for the internet as we know it.

Updated
Tech News
5 min read
Splinternet: Is Russia Planning To Disconnect From World Wide Web?
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A document issued by Russia's Ministry of Digital Development has led to speculations that the country might cut itself off from the global internet. This comes as Russia faces a slew of Western sanctions for invading Ukraine.

The ministry has refuted the claims, but recent developments don't bode well for the internet as we know it.

For instance, United States (US)-based Cogent Communications, one of the world’s largest internet backbone providers, has cut off Russia from its infrastructure for carrying internet traffic around the world, according to The Washington Post.

Many of the biggest technology and social media companies have also decided to withdraw from Russia, prompting it to place its own restrictions on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Will this conflict lead to the splintering of the internet? Here's what you should know:

Splinternet: Is Russia Planning To Disconnect From World Wide Web?

  1. 1. Chernenko's Order

    According to Fortune's translation, the letter appears to be an order from Russia’s deputy digital minister Andrei Chernenko. It makes the following demands:

    • Russian state-owned websites and online portals should beef up their security by Friday, 11 March 2022.

    • They must also move their hosting to Russian services if they are currently using foreign hosting services, and remove all elements that use JavaScript code from their web pages, like banners and visit counters.

    • State-owned web services must, by 11 March, also switch to domain name system (DNS) servers physically located in Russia.

    The last demand is particularly telling. The Domain Name System (DNS) is like a phonebook which translates web addresses like www.thequint.com to the corresponding numerical IP address.

    The global DNS is run by a US-based non-profit organisation called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Russia is creating an alternative DNS which could allow it to operate a parallel internet, without relying on ICANN.

    Its government, however, denies this.

    "Russian websites are continuously being attacked by cyberattacks from abroad. We are preparing for various scenarios to ensure the availability of Russian resources. There are no plans to turn off the Internet from within," the ministry told Interfax on Monday.

    Expand
  2. 2. Tech Sanctions and Russia’s Retaliation

    Cogent Communications, which services some of Russia's biggest telecom providers, is a part of Transit-Free Zone (TFZ), a small group of giant global telecom companies that exchange internet traffic for free with each other and charge smaller networks for bandwidth.

    "Disconnecting their customers in Russia will not disconnect Russia, but it will reduce the amount of overall bandwidth available for international connectivity."
    Doug Madory, Analyst at Kentik

    "This reduction in bandwidth may lead to congestion as the remaining international carriers try to pick up the slack," noted Madory.

    Big Tech has also decided to withdraw from Russia, buckling to pressure from Ukraine, the US, and the European Union.

    Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's minister for digital transformation, wrote to Apple, Google, Netflix, YouTube, and Meta, asking them to suspend services in Russia or block propaganda accounts.

    Some platforms like Meta and Twitter have stopped ads and placed restrictions on content, while others, like TikTok and Netflix, have stopped their services entirely.

    In retaliation, Russia's media regulator Roskomnadzor said that it would partly restrict Facebook. The regulator accused Facebook of violating the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens and asked for an explanation. Russia has also blocked Twitter in the country.

    Russia has restricted access to Western news outlets and passed a law that threatens prison time for anyone publishing "false information and data about the use of Russia's armed forces."

    The law, which says anyone found guilty would be punished by a prison sentence of up to 15 years or a fine of up to 1.5 million roubles, has led news organisations like CNN, BBC, and Bloomberg News to suspend operations in Russia.

    Even if Russia hasn't disconnected from the global internet, this combination of internal and external restrictions has already made it difficult for the average Russian citizen to freely access information via the internet.

    "Cutting Russians off from internet access cuts them off from sources of independent news and the ability to organize anti-war protests. Don't do Putin's dirty work for him," wrote Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation in response to Cogent's move.

    Expand
  3. 3. Russia’s 'Sovereign Internet Law' of 2019

    Russia's aforementioned alternative to the global DNS falls under a legal framework that was introduced in November 2019, referred to as the Sovereign Internet Law.

    This framework, which allows for the government to manage the internet within Russia’s borders, lends considerable weight to concerns about the 'splinternet.'

    While the amendments officially aim to protect Russia's internet from external threats, they could theoretically enable the country’s isolation from the global internet.

    According to German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the following amendments are points of concern:

    • The compulsory installation of technical equipment for counteracting threats, which could allow the government to create a mechanism for effective surveillance of the internet within its borders.

    • Centralised management of telecommunication networks during threats and a control mechanism for connection lines crossing the border of Russia, which would allow the government to open and close Russia's digital borders as it pleases.

    • The implementation of a Russian national Domain Name System (DNS), which would allow Russia to set up a parallel internet.

    Expand
  4. 4. Is Russia Ready To Disconnect?

    Alena Epifanova, a Russian cyber-policy expert at DGAP, believes that the Russian government does not currently allocate enough resources to realise its plans for gaining technology sovereignty.

    "Although Russia has made considerable progress in internet control in recent years, it cannot yet completely decouple from the global internet and foreign technologies without serious consequences for its people and economy," she wrote.

    No single country has managed to create a system yet that could work in parallel to the worldwide DNS. Furthermore, switching to a national DNS system could mean security issues and broad disruptions since web services will have to be reconfigured.

    While Russia is pushing for local alternatives to popular apps and services (since they can be blocked by the West during conflicts), it doesn't need to worry about losing access to the global DNS at the moment.

    Ukraine had asked ICANN to cut Russia off from the DNS system and to revoke domains like including .ru and .su. The organisation, however, refused categorically.

    “Our mission does not extend to taking punitive actions, issuing sanctions, or restricting access against segments of the internet, regardless of the provocations,” Göran Marby, CEO of ICANN, wrote in a letter to Fedorov.

    "Essentially, ICANN has been built to ensure that the Internet works, not for its coordination role to be used to stop it from working," he added.

    Expand
  5. 5. Will Russia Turn to China?

    With the recent restrictions, Russia's internet ecosystem is starting to look a lot like China's 'Golden Shield.'

    Though Russia has its alternatives like search engine Yandex and social network VK, it doesn't yet have the app ecosystem or the technical ability to afford shutting off internet services from Europe and the US.

    Given the apparent cooperation between the two, it seems natural for Russia to lean on China's tech prowess to develop its parallel internet. However, the former seems to have some concerns.

    "Russia is very reluctant to switch to Chinese alternatives and decouple from proven US and European IT solutions," Epifanova wrote in her analysis, "It has serious security concerns over relying on Chinese IT and understands that, given the United States’ tech rivalry with China, negative spillover effects of US sanctions on Chinese companies might recur."

    (With inputs from The Washington Post, Interfax, and Fortune.)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Chernenko's Order

According to Fortune's translation, the letter appears to be an order from Russia’s deputy digital minister Andrei Chernenko. It makes the following demands:

  • Russian state-owned websites and online portals should beef up their security by Friday, 11 March 2022.

  • They must also move their hosting to Russian services if they are currently using foreign hosting services, and remove all elements that use JavaScript code from their web pages, like banners and visit counters.

  • State-owned web services must, by 11 March, also switch to domain name system (DNS) servers physically located in Russia.

The last demand is particularly telling. The Domain Name System (DNS) is like a phonebook which translates web addresses like www.thequint.com to the corresponding numerical IP address.

The global DNS is run by a US-based non-profit organisation called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Russia is creating an alternative DNS which could allow it to operate a parallel internet, without relying on ICANN.

Its government, however, denies this.

"Russian websites are continuously being attacked by cyberattacks from abroad. We are preparing for various scenarios to ensure the availability of Russian resources. There are no plans to turn off the Internet from within," the ministry told Interfax on Monday.

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Tech Sanctions and Russia’s Retaliation

Cogent Communications, which services some of Russia's biggest telecom providers, is a part of Transit-Free Zone (TFZ), a small group of giant global telecom companies that exchange internet traffic for free with each other and charge smaller networks for bandwidth.

"Disconnecting their customers in Russia will not disconnect Russia, but it will reduce the amount of overall bandwidth available for international connectivity."
Doug Madory, Analyst at Kentik

"This reduction in bandwidth may lead to congestion as the remaining international carriers try to pick up the slack," noted Madory.

Big Tech has also decided to withdraw from Russia, buckling to pressure from Ukraine, the US, and the European Union.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's minister for digital transformation, wrote to Apple, Google, Netflix, YouTube, and Meta, asking them to suspend services in Russia or block propaganda accounts.

Some platforms like Meta and Twitter have stopped ads and placed restrictions on content, while others, like TikTok and Netflix, have stopped their services entirely.

In retaliation, Russia's media regulator Roskomnadzor said that it would partly restrict Facebook. The regulator accused Facebook of violating the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens and asked for an explanation. Russia has also blocked Twitter in the country.

Russia has restricted access to Western news outlets and passed a law that threatens prison time for anyone publishing "false information and data about the use of Russia's armed forces."

The law, which says anyone found guilty would be punished by a prison sentence of up to 15 years or a fine of up to 1.5 million roubles, has led news organisations like CNN, BBC, and Bloomberg News to suspend operations in Russia.

Even if Russia hasn't disconnected from the global internet, this combination of internal and external restrictions has already made it difficult for the average Russian citizen to freely access information via the internet.

"Cutting Russians off from internet access cuts them off from sources of independent news and the ability to organize anti-war protests. Don't do Putin's dirty work for him," wrote Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation in response to Cogent's move.

Russia’s 'Sovereign Internet Law' of 2019

Russia's aforementioned alternative to the global DNS falls under a legal framework that was introduced in November 2019, referred to as the Sovereign Internet Law.

This framework, which allows for the government to manage the internet within Russia’s borders, lends considerable weight to concerns about the 'splinternet.'

While the amendments officially aim to protect Russia's internet from external threats, they could theoretically enable the country’s isolation from the global internet.

According to German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the following amendments are points of concern:

  • The compulsory installation of technical equipment for counteracting threats, which could allow the government to create a mechanism for effective surveillance of the internet within its borders.

  • Centralised management of telecommunication networks during threats and a control mechanism for connection lines crossing the border of Russia, which would allow the government to open and close Russia's digital borders as it pleases.

  • The implementation of a Russian national Domain Name System (DNS), which would allow Russia to set up a parallel internet.

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Is Russia Ready To Disconnect?

Alena Epifanova, a Russian cyber-policy expert at DGAP, believes that the Russian government does not currently allocate enough resources to realise its plans for gaining technology sovereignty.

"Although Russia has made considerable progress in internet control in recent years, it cannot yet completely decouple from the global internet and foreign technologies without serious consequences for its people and economy," she wrote.

No single country has managed to create a system yet that could work in parallel to the worldwide DNS. Furthermore, switching to a national DNS system could mean security issues and broad disruptions since web services will have to be reconfigured.

While Russia is pushing for local alternatives to popular apps and services (since they can be blocked by the West during conflicts), it doesn't need to worry about losing access to the global DNS at the moment.

Ukraine had asked ICANN to cut Russia off from the DNS system and to revoke domains like including .ru and .su. The organisation, however, refused categorically.

“Our mission does not extend to taking punitive actions, issuing sanctions, or restricting access against segments of the internet, regardless of the provocations,” Göran Marby, CEO of ICANN, wrote in a letter to Fedorov.

"Essentially, ICANN has been built to ensure that the Internet works, not for its coordination role to be used to stop it from working," he added.

Will Russia Turn to China?

With the recent restrictions, Russia's internet ecosystem is starting to look a lot like China's 'Golden Shield.'

Though Russia has its alternatives like search engine Yandex and social network VK, it doesn't yet have the app ecosystem or the technical ability to afford shutting off internet services from Europe and the US.

Given the apparent cooperation between the two, it seems natural for Russia to lean on China's tech prowess to develop its parallel internet. However, the former seems to have some concerns.

"Russia is very reluctant to switch to Chinese alternatives and decouple from proven US and European IT solutions," Epifanova wrote in her analysis, "It has serious security concerns over relying on Chinese IT and understands that, given the United States’ tech rivalry with China, negative spillover effects of US sanctions on Chinese companies might recur."

(With inputs from The Washington Post, Interfax, and Fortune.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Published: 
Edited By :Tejas Harad
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