The world, both physical and digital, finds itself in unprecedented times as the conflict in Ukraine rages.
Corporate giants such as Meta, Google and Apple, who have always framed themselves as neutral tech firms, are now pinning their political colours to the mast – banning products in Russia in response to its invasion.
Meanwhile the internet itself is changing for Russian users – with Twitter and Facebook blocked, TikTok not allowing Russian users to post, and the police reportedly stopping people in the streets to look at what they are viewing on their phones.
Now there are questions about whether the conflict may not just alter the world’s geography, but fundamentally change the nature of the global internet.
Should Russia be cut off from the internet?
The Ukrainian government has singled out individual tech firms to ask them to ban services in Russia, and the list of tech firms refusing to do business or sell products there is growing by the day.
Now Ukraine’s tech-savvy leaders are calling for something bigger – for Russia to be completely unplugged from the global internet.
The calls were answered with an emphatic “No” from ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which is in charge of internet governance. It was asked to revoke Russia’s top-level domains such as .ru along with the nation’s associated Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates.
But its tagline is “One World, One Internet” and in his response to Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov, ICANN’s chief executive Goran Marby said: “Within our mission, we maintain neutrality and act in support of the global internet. Our mission does not extend to taking punitive actions, issuing sanctions, or restricting access against segments on the internet – regardless of the provocations.”
Digital privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was one of several organisations to support the decision.
In a statement, EFF’s Corynne McSherry and Konstantinos Komaitis said that war was no time to “mess with the internet”. Interfering with fundamental internet infrastructure protocols would have “dangerous and long-lasting consequences.”
These would include:
- depriving people of the most powerful tool for sharing information
- setting a dangerous precedent
- compromising security and privacy
Cloudflare, a web infrastructure firm which offers protection against cyber-attacks, has also been asked by Ukraine to terminate its services inside Russia.
In a blog, the firm said it had considered these requests, but concluded that “Russia needs more internet access, not less”.
What is a Splinternet and how does it work?
For many, the calls for the cut-off were a dangerous slippery slope towards what is known as the Splinternet – where different countries have different versions of the internet.
The Great Firewall of China, as it is known, is perhaps the most obvious example of how a country can create its own web.
But in Iran too, net content is policed, and external information is limited by the state-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran.
Russia itself has been experimenting with a sovereign internet – dubbed Runet – for several years, albeit one that has been retro-fitted to the existing internet rather than China’s built-from-the-ground-up version.
In 2019, the Russian government said it had successfully tested the system. At the time few understood the need for it, but now, in the context of the Ukraine invasion, it all “makes a whole lot more sense”, said Prof Alan Woodward, a computer scientist from the University of Surrey.
In that test, Russian ISPs were asked to effectively configure the internet within their borders as if it were a giant intranet – a private network of websites that don’t speak to the outside world.
The initiative involved restricting the points at which Russia’s version of the net connected to its global counterpart.
Now it appears Russia is re-testing those systems – in a memo from the Russian government, ISPs were asked to beef up their security and connect to domain name system (DNS) servers in Russia.
Some thought the memo, and the date for completion of the test on 11 March, meant Russia intended to cut itself off imminently.
Russia has since denied it will cut itself off, saying the test was about protecting Russian websites from foreign cyber-attacks.
But James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China, thinks the plug could be pulled at any time: “Cutting off the internet, making sure Russians are only consuming the content that the Kremlin approves of, that kind of thing makes sense strategically, so you can see the path we’re headed down,” he told the BBC.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that came into force in the coming weeks or months.”
What would be the consequences of that?
Abishur Prakash, author of the book How Technology is remaking Globalisation, thinks the conflict is reshaping the internet, from “a global system that the whole world has been plugged into” to something more fractured.
“Because of geopolitics, a different design for the internet is emerging, where nations are either cut off or are developing their own alternative. The global bridges, like social media platforms, that have connected populations for decades, are being brought down.”
And, according to James Griffiths, the new axis of net power will be divided between the West and China/Russia.
“Liu Wei, known as the founding father of China’s Great Firewall, visited Russia in 2016 to assist them in what they’re doing and make the Russian firewall much more similar to the Chinese one,” he said
And now Russia will once again look to Beijing, as internet firms withdraw services and products, he thinks: “As the Russian economy is cut off from a lot of the global economy, they are turning to China. They will have to rely on China even more so than they have in the past.”
So far tech firms such as Huawei have said nothing official on the conflict.