Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, and the subsequent blowbacks to the country’s digital infrastructure in the form of sanctions, retracting business from companies, and its own blocking of several popular services, has raised fears that the world may be in for another splintering of the internet—and possibly more cyberattacks.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, French digital affairs envoy Henri Verdier said any transition by Russia to move toward an independent internet “would have very severe consequences,” and warned that nation-states might be more tempted to launch devastating cyberattacks they were sure they would be insulated from the results.
“Today if I break the Russian internet, probably I will break my own internet, because it’s the same,” Verdier said, arguing that the shared nature of the world wide web protected all users from losing service.
In traditional terms, the internet is a massive network of interconnected cables, computers, wireless signals and more that are constantly exchanging information between themselves across the world. The concept of the splinternet is just as the name implies—a breaking of the connections at the hands of concerned political powers.
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There are already some examples of such splintering in the world, the most infamous being China’s Great Firewall, a combination of technology and legislation run by the Communist Party of China, which censors and determines what people see and talk about, and severely limits, if not outright blocks, access to the global internet, essentially creating an ever-growing echo chamber of an intranet as citizens find themselves increasingly isolated from the world.
Another example is Iran’s experimental National Information Network, a national intranet with switches, routers and data centres that allows for data requests to avoid being routed outside of the country, effectively creating another echo chamber, and if it evolves enough, another Great Firewall.
Such examples preclude Russia’s own attempts at creating a splinter of the internet—most recently seen in the country’s blocking of Western services like Google News, Facebook and Instagram over violation of recently-created laws to block any reference of the Ukraine invasion as an invasion or war and calls of protest against Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s attempts at creating this quasi-intranet is based on a set of amendments in 2019—the Sovereign Internet Law—which mandates internet surveillance and grants the Russian government powers to partition Russia from the rest of the internet. Purportedly, it is meant to suppress the dissemination of unreliable socially significant information under the guise of reliable messages that creates a threat of harm to citizens or property, or otherwise, threaten the function of certain aspects of life such as communications or energy facilities.
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“If we have two or three or four internets, the temptation to disconnect the other will be very high,” Verdier warned, adding that authoritarian countries could try to take democratic countries offline if such mutual dependence were lost.
Even India has seen comments from political leaders on the “ill effects” of certain Western social media platforms like Twitter, which saw a massive spat with the Union Government not too long ago, and a subsequent law that mandated companies enable traceability of end-to-end encrypted messages, and establish local offices staffed with senior officials to deal with law enforcement and user grievances.
Splinternet and cyberattacks
The recent rise in the number of cyberattacks, ostensibly by Russia, China and North Korea, emphasises just how authoritarian governments could possibly use a closed-off internet network to launch cyberattacks on both companies and critical infrastructure systems like power grids and be mostly, if not entirely, shielded from any blowback.
A 2017 incident demonstrated how a cyberattack can affect the country from which it originated. The NotPetya ransomware outbreak, which US and UK blamed on the Russian government, caused a reported $10 billion in damage after malware aimed at Ukrainian systems spread to IT systems around the world, affecting systems including Russia’s state oil company Rosneft PJSC.
US President Joe Biden recently warned of intelligence pointing to a growing Russian cyber threat and urged US businesses to “immediately” prepare defences.
Biden cited “evolving intelligence that the Russian government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks,” including in response to Western sanctions over Moscow’s launching of the war in Ukraine.
But there are defendants of the idea of a splinternet. Clyde Wayne Crews of the Cato Institute argued in 2001 that splintering the internet would increase users’ options and wealth, and protects their rights, “which depend so critically on the institution of private property.”
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