Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, many of the norms of global commerce have been ripped apart; will the internet be next?

Is the internet on the point of breaking up between Russia and Ukraine?

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many of the norms of global commerce have been ripped apart; will the internet be next?

As the situation in Ukraine rages, the world, both physical and digital, finds itself in uncharted times.

Corporate behemoths like Meta, Google, and Apple, which have traditionally portrayed themselves as politically agnostic, are suddenly displaying their political colours by blocking products in Russia in response to the country’s invasion.

Meanwhile, the internet is changing for Russian users, with Twitter and Facebook being blocked, TikTok not allowing Russian users to post, and police stopping individuals on the street to check at what they’re looking at on their phones.

There are now concerns that the fight will not only transform the world’s geography but will also fundamentally alter the nature of the global internet.

Is it necessary to shut Russia off from the internet?

The Ukrainian government has targeted certain IT companies and asked them to stop doing business or selling products in Russia, and the list of companies refusing to conduct business or sell products in Russia is expanding by the day.

Ukraine’s tech-savvy leaders are now advocating for something even more drastic: Russia’s full isolation from the global internet.

ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which is in charge of internet administration, responded with a resounding “No.” Russia’s top-level domains, such, as well as the country’s associated Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certifications, were requested to be revoked.

However, its motto is “One World, One Internet,” ICANN’s chief executive Goran Marby remarked in a response to Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov, “Within our purpose, we retain neutrality and operate in support of the global internet.” Regardless of the provocations, our mandate does not include taking punitive steps, imposing fines, or blocking access to areas of the internet.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital privacy advocacy group, was one of the numerous organisations that backed the judgement.

Corynne McSherry and Konstantinos Komaitis of the EFF stated in a statement that war was not the time to “mess with the internet.” Interfering with basic internet infrastructure protocols would have “severe and long-term effects,” according to the report.

These would include the following:

  • denying individuals access to the most effective instrument for knowledge exchange
  • establishing a potentially harmful precedent
  • security and privacy are being jeopardised

Ukraine has also urged Cloudflare, a web infrastructure company that provides cyber-attack security, to cease operations in Russia.

The corporation claimed in a blog post that it has weighed these demands but that “Russia needs more internet connectivity, not less.”

What exactly is a Splinternet, and how does it function?

For many, the calls for the cut-off were a frightening step toward the Splinternet, a situation in which various countries had distinct versions of the internet.

The Great Firewall of China, as it’s called, is arguably the most visible illustration of a country’s ability to build its own web.

However, the state-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran regulates internet content and restricts foreign information.

For several years, Russia has been experimenting with a sovereign internet, termed Runet, however it is a retrofitted version of the current internet rather than China’s built-from-the-ground-up version.

The Russian government said in 2019 that the technology has been successfully tested. Few understood the need for it at the time, but it now “makes a whole lot more sense” in the context of the Ukraine invasion, according to Prof Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at the University of Surrey.

In that test, Russian ISPs were requested to design the internet within their borders as if it were a massive intranet – a private network of websites that don’t communicate with the rest of the world.

The effort aimed to limit the sites where Russia’s version of the internet linked to its global equivalent.

Now it appears that Russia is re-testing such systems, as ISPs were instructed to strengthen their security in a communication from the Russian government.

Some interpreted the message, as well as the test’s completion date of March 11, to suggest that Russia was about to cut itself off.

“This was more about Russia calling on ISPs to get ready, to build local copies of the DNS – the phone book of the internet – and to have local versions of third-party software that originates from servers outside Russia, such as Javascript,” Prof Woodward says.

Since then, Russia has disputed that it would cut itself off, claiming that the test intended to safeguard Russian websites from foreign cyber-attacks.

The Great Firewall of China author James Griffiths believes the plug could be pulled at any time: “Cutting off the internet, making sure Russians are only consuming content that the Kremlin approves of, that kind of thing makes strategic sense, so you can see the path we’re headed down,” he told the Flaunt Weekly.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if it happened in the next few weeks or months.”

What would be the ramifications of this?

The battle, according to Abishur Prakash, author of The World is Vertical: How Technology is Remaking Globalisation, is transforming the internet from “a global system into which the entire world has been hooked” to something more divided.

“Because of geopolitics, a new internet architecture is evolving, in which countries are either blocked off from the internet or constructing their own alternative. Global bridges, such as social media platforms, that have linked people for decades are being demolished.”

The new axis of net power, according to James Griffiths, will be split between the West and China/Russia.

“Fang Binxing, the founding father of China’s Great Firewall, visited Russia in 2016 to assist them in their efforts and make the Russian firewall much more akin to the Chinese firewall,” he claimed.

And now, as internet corporations withdraw services and goods, Russia will once again resort to Beijing, he believes: “Because Russia’s economy is shut off from much of the rest of the world, it is looking to China for help. They will be forced to rely on China much more than in the past.”

So yet, tech companies like Huawei have made no formal statements on the issue.