Splinternet: Will Russia withdraw from the internet?
Ukraine’s representative to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently requested that Russian top-level domains (TLDs), including .ru and .su, be revoked along with their SSL certificates ( Secure Socket Layer).
They also asked the Regional Internet Registry for Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia (RIPE) to revoke Russia’s right to use the IPv4 and IPv6 addresses assigned to it and to block its servers. Root DNS.
The result would have been to effectively disconnect Russia from the Internet.
In explaining why ICANN and RIPE both rejected the requests, Andrew Sullivan, President and CEO of the Internet Society, called the potential outcome “Splinternet.” Cutting off Russia would not only break the interconnection, but also create a fragmented Internet, divided along geographical or political borders. Sullivan saw this as a “slippery slope” and “the antithesis of how the internet was designed and meant to work”.
Others, such as the RIPE Board, have argued that “means of communication should not be affected by national political disputes, international conflicts or war”. Paul Twomey, former President and CEO of ICANN, tweeted that keeping the internet in Russia was “the best way to ensure the effectiveness of sites spreading diverse opinions to Russian audiences.”
In response, the Ukrainian government took another approach. They actively and successfully campaigned for tech companies to cut ties with Russia. There is a long list of companies that have closed or suspended their activities in Russia: Google, Apple, Facebook (Meta), IBM, Oracle and many others.
Cryptocurrency trading platform Coinbase has blocked 25,000 wallet addresses in Russia. Traditional financial platforms – Visa, Mastercard, American Express, PayPal – have all pulled out.
The digital certificates that browsers need to guarantee the security of encrypted traffic are not renewed in Russia. The Russian government is working to replace them with their own Russian-issued certificates, but these are only good if recognized by Internet browsers. So far, Google, Microsoft and Firefox have not accepted these new Russian certificates.
Finally, two of the main Internet backbone providers have done what ICANN and RIPE would not have done: they cut the main Internet links to Russia, at least the ones they control. Lumen Technologies and Cogent thus severed Russia’s ties with the Internet. This does not totally isolate the country, but it will have a major impact not only on Russian data but also on telecommunications services. It may also disturb a number of other countries allied with Russia.
Who is breaking up with whom?
Russia’s answer is, if the sources are correct, to disconnect from the Internet.
A free Belarusian news service called NEXTA, based in Warsaw, Poland, released what was supposed to be a Russian policy document which stated that by Friday, March 11, all Russian websites should be switched to the Russian domain name system (DNS) service.
One of the reasons this leaked information seems credible is that Russia already requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to route traffic through servers run by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecommunications regulator. Indeed, Russia is already equipped to disconnect from external connections and create a “Russian-only Internet”. Moreover, they tested this capability in 2019. They even have a name for the network: RuNet.
RuNet would effectively block any access not explicitly authorized by Russia. Presumably, the network would retain some external connections and allow permitted site traffic, although what that would be is uncertain.
Not a first
Although internet regulators feared a “slippery slope”, the reality is that Russia would not be the first country to have its own version of the internet. Iran and North Korea also have severe restrictions on external internet access, and China built its own isolated internet many years ago with the “Great Firewall”.
Fang Binxing, the father of China’s Great Firewall, reportedly traveled to Russia in 2016 to help them develop RuNet. According to author James Griffith, Binxing wanted to “make the Russian firewall much more similar to the Chinese firewall”.
For its part, Russia has denied plans to cut itself, saying the recent tests were just a way to try to protect Russian websites from foreign cyberattacks.
The impact of an exclusively Russian Internet
What would a Russian-only Internet do? This would effectively shut down social media like Facebook and Twitter. But that might be a moot point; Russia is already blocking or throttling social media sites. Additionally, social media giants such as Meta (Facebook), Google, Twitter and Apple have all effectively pulled out of Russia.
It would also deal a mortal blow to whatever remains of independent media. Most independent media are closed in Russia, and what remains communicates from neighboring countries via the Internet. As long as the internet is open, Russians can still use VPNs, but not without risk. VPN use in Russia is legal, although access to officially blocked content is not. They can also use the TOR network, the open source system for anonymizing online communications also known as the onion router. Russia has the second largest TOR user base in the world, with over 300,000 daily users. Dissidents and forces opposed to Putin’s regime depend on these methods to access uncensored information and to communicate with the outside world without being hounded by authorities.
It raises a host of questions
If Russia were to disconnect from the Internet, what would be the impact? For those who are committed to a universal, free and open Web, this is a setback. Other than that, the impact could be minimal. For those in the West, it might even have positive results.
Corporate communications would be greatly disrupted. All of the global enterprise’s communication tools – Teams, Zoom, Webex, Google Meetings and Docs, Slack and other chat programs – these and a host of collaboration tools and systems would be disrupted or shut down. Realistically, this only affects the handful of international companies today that might choose to stay in Russia. This list is shrinking every day.
In a world based on software as a service (SaaS), software is no longer stored on local computers but is downloaded from a central server. If these are removed or stopped, processing stops. Most Western businesses could not function even for a few days, and in some cases even hours, without software provided by the Internet. How long Russian companies can operate is a real question. Presumably, there are desktop versions of software that Russians will have access to, but even those will be problematic. They will no longer receive security updates. Week after week, they will be more vulnerable to attack. Bugs will not be fixed. No new functionality will be added. And as we saw when hackers successfully disrupted Iran’s nuclear program, no network, even one isolated from the global Internet, is immune to attack.
On the positive side, Russia is a known haven for cybercriminals and ransomware gangs. These attacks, even using TOR and the dark web, will be easier to spot and block if they cannot be hidden in the mass of other Russian traffic. These groups could decide to work outside of Russia, but the protection they enjoyed within Russian borders would no longer be there.
Recently, there have been stories about the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies in Russia. Russians are said to have flocked to the “stable coin,” which has a fixed conversion to a currency such as the US dollar. Cryptocurrencies would allow them to hold US dollars as the ruble becomes nearly worthless.
This might be useful for those who already held cryptocurrencies, but for those trying to convert their Russian money today, there is a problem. The ruble is already almost worthless; its value is less than one cent in US dollars.
Russian oligarchs and even the Russian government could use cryptocurrency to defy sanctions or hide their assets overseas. It becomes more difficult with the internet effectively shut down and fewer and fewer options available. Participation of any major cryptocurrency to evade sanctions is sure to result in severe sanctions and restrictions from western governments.
Will a mainstream cryptocurrency want to risk sanctions from Western governments? Will Western investors stick with a cryptocurrency they claim is helping to devastate Ukraine? When over 70% of US citizens pay more at the gas pump to help Ukraine, the cryptocurrency won’t get a pass or fly under the radar.
Finally, Russia will be increasingly isolated, not only in real life, but in all aspects of the digital transformation that all economies are going through. The emergence of this new digital order will continue to transform all aspects of our lives in much the same way as the mobile age, perhaps even more intensely. Innovation and transformation will create new wealth and new opportunities. Behind their firewall, a generation of Russians will be left behind.
We have seen this before. For years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ever-popular Levi’s blue jeans were coveted by Russian youth. They were smuggled into the country at great expense and risk. It was illegal to smuggle them in, but so many Russians defied the ban that it became impossible to hold back the wave of change. The government failed miserably in its attempt to have its own brand of jeans; Russian youth wanted to have what Western teenagers had. Russia eventually gave in and imported tens of thousands of pairs of Levi’s.
There is a lesson to be learned here. Last-gen tactics can be successful in the short term and keep an aging, conservative population under control, but retaining a younger generation is something else entirely.
The Ukraine crisis has accelerated our economic transformation the same way the COVID pandemic has changed the way we work. Governments around the world are striving to accelerate their progress towards a greener digital economy that has less and less need for what Russia has to sell – oil and gas. Without fully participating in the digital economy, where will Russia’s future wealth come from?
Expecting a younger generation to pass up this opportunity of the future has always been a losing bet. The idea that they’ll choose a “call of duty” in real life (where they get shot) over a “call of duty” in an immersive game world is an extremely bad bet.
In the end, it is by no means certain that Ukraine will win the ground war. But even if Russia wins this war, it risks losing the long game. Ukraine may have forced Russia to retreat to a remote island, held back in a resource-based economy as the world around it enters the next phase of the industrial revolution – the digital age.
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