Explained: Why the Russian-Ukrainian War Threatens to Burst the Internet


In 2001, when the Internet was facing a slew of regulations from around the world, Clyde Wayne Crews, a researcher at the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, proposed the idea of ​​”splinternet” – an Internet divided into disparate domains controlled by different exemptions. or powers.

The fundamental proposition was to have more internets instead of having more regulations.

Over the past two decades, a splintering of the Internet has occurred in a limited way. China’s “Great Firewall” keeps American tech giants away while pushing homegrown online services. Russia in 2019 passed the Sovereign Internet Law – or the Iron Curtain Online – which allowed the country to disconnect its internet from the rest of the world.


Crews may have been ahead of its time in coming up with a splinternet. But the events of the past four weeks pose the first serious challenge to the way the Internet has evolved into a global system of interconnected computer networks, which use the Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) to communicate between networks and devices.

As dystopian as the idea may have seemed in those years, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to be a potential trigger for a busted internet. French envoy for digital affairs Henri Verdier, in an interview with Bloomberg Newsrecently said that the combination of Moscow’s growing online censorship attempts, combined with Ukraine’s repeated calls for Russia to be taken offline, could potentially trigger possible “internet fragmentation”.

“Will the single, neutral, multiparty and free internet survive this crisis?” asked Verdier. “I am not sure.”

The Internet is essentially a global network of physical cables, which can include copper telephone wires, television cables, and fiber optic cables, as well as wireless connections such as Wi-Fi and 3G/4G, which operate physical cables to connect users and devices to the Internet. Countries connect to global web services via undersea cables or nodes which are connection points through which data is transmitted to and from other countries’ communication networks. The splinternet concept provides for blocking or regulating these connection points.

Viability barrier

Can Russia, or China, just create a parallel or alternative system that will be viable? There are already experiences of government-run walled gardens taking shape.

In Iran, for example, a project called the National Information Network (NIN) – also known as the National Internet in Iran – has been launched by the state-owned telecommunications company of Iran. Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council defines the NIN as “an Internet Protocol-based network with switches, routers, and data centers that allows data requests to avoid being routed outside the country and provides secure and private intranets”.

The Chinese “Great Firewall”, also known as “The Golden Shield Project”, is another experiment in this direction. It was started by the Ministry of Public Security Division of the Chinese government in 1998. The objective of this project is to monitor and censor what can and cannot be seen via an online network in China, and improves continual restriction techniques by various methods. . It blocks access to many foreign internet services, which in turn helps domestic tech giants, such as Baidu, expand their reach.

Like Baidu, Russia already has tech champions like Yandex and Mail.Ru. But unlike their Chinese counterparts, Russians have been able to access global technology platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, despite some censorship.

But in the years since its invasion of Crimea, Moscow has been working proactively on its separate internet project. The country plans to create its own Wikipedia, and Russian lawmakers have passed a law banning the sale of smartphones without pre-installed Russian software.

Much of these provisions and restrictions on Western platforms are done through a “sovereign internet law” enacted by Moscow in 2019, which allows Roskomnadzor – a public communications player – to regulate access. access to the Internet in the country and potentially cut its online ties with the rest of the world.

As sanctions tightened, Moscow said it decided to block Facebook in retaliation for restrictions it imposed on Russian media.

India, too, is reportedly working on a new cybersecurity and data governance framework amid the continued ‘weaponisation’ of the internet by Big Tech platforms during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which has exposed the sweeping powers social media platforms.

The groundwork and sandbox for a shattered Indian internet has apparently happened over the past few years. Last year, Union ministers and political leaders from the ruling BJP threw their weight behind the microblogging app Kooo – this was at the same time that New Delhi was in a tangle with Twitter.

What are bursting problems?

So far, state-sponsored cyber warfare, despite stray cases, has been a scattered event. This was mainly possible thanks to the diplomatic involvement of countries and jurisdictions in maintaining cyber relations. The splinternet could put a brake on this work.

According to Verdier, any move by Russia towards an independent internet “would have serious consequences,” including tempting countries to launch cyberattacks because they would be insulated from the impact.

“Today, if I break the Russian Internet, I will probably break mine, because it’s the same,” Verdier said. Bloombergarguing that the shared nature of the World Wide Web protected all users from loss of service.

US President Joe Biden has previously warned that Russia is considering attacks on critical infrastructure. “Based on evolving intelligence, Russia may be planning a cyberattack against us,” Biden said at a March 21 press conference. “The scale of Russia’s cyber capability is quite substantial and it is coming.”

Moscow has categorically denied these accusations. “The Russian Federation, unlike many Western countries, including the United States, does not engage in banditry at the state level,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

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Case for a splinternet

Crews had argued two decades ago that “the war over the digital commons invites more regulation and adds to a deteriorated and antiquated internet.” He had written that the splintering of the internet would not only increase options, but also protect the rights of internet users, “who so critically depend on the institution of private property”.

It is also remarkable how a project for Bitcoin – a cryptocurrency developed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis with the fundamental driver being the lack of trust in a centralized authority – evolved and resulted in the spread of Web 3.0 , which is a reinvented and decentralized form of an open, trustless, permissionless Internet, or perhaps, another splinter in the existing Internet.

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