Thursday, May 19, 2022

Russia risks the creation of a “splinter net” – and it could be irreversible

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The movements have raised fears of a “splinter net” (or balkanized Internet), in which instead of the single global Internet we have today, we have a number of national or regional networks that do not talk to each other and may even operate using incompatible technologies.

That would mean the end of the Internet as a single global communications technology — and perhaps not just temporarily. China and Iran still use the same internet technology as the US and Europe, even though they only have access to some of their services. If such countries establish rival governing bodies and network, only the mutual consent of all the great nations of the world could rebuild it. The era of a connected world would be over.

Some steps have already been taken towards this type of action. Last month, the Ukrainian government called on ICANN, which oversees the Internet’s domain name system, to suspend Russia’s access to the system, effectively removing “.ru” sites from the Internet.

ICANN, once an offshoot of the US Department of Commerce but now operating as a non-governmental organization, flatly rejected the proposal.

†[T]The internet is a decentralized system. No actor has the ability to control it or disable it,” CEO Gorän Marby wrote in his response to the proposal. “Essentially, ICANN is built to make the internet work, not to use its coordinating role to stop it from work.”

Marby’s caution is warranted. ICANN has no power in law or statute over the Domain Name System – its decisions are voluntarily accepted by all Internet operators. That makes decision-making extremely slow (everything has to be agreed by consensus), but works to keep the internet together.

The other governing bodies of the internet work in much the same way: they are independent international bodies that work by convention, not by force. Almost everyone agrees that this is a strange and inconvenient way to manage a piece of vital global infrastructure, but no one can agree on a better alternative.

To agree on a new governance for the Internet would require the consent of the nations of the world – something so rare that it does not exist in the 21st century. But that does mean that the internet is held together by little more than a mutual voluntary agreement.

So what would a real splinternet look like in practice? And how close are we to it?

According to Milton Mueller of the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, actual fragmentation of the Internet—instead of different countries using different platforms on the same underlying architecture—can take two forms.

“A major, serious fragmentation of the Internet would involve a technically incompatible protocol used by a critical mass of the world’s population,” he says.

This first form of fragmentation would not be catastrophic. “Technologists would probably find a way to bridge the two protocols in the short term,” Mueller says.

The second form of fragmentation would be to continue to use technically compatible protocols, but to have different governing bodies managing these services. This may prove more difficult to reverse.

If Russia, China, or a number of other countries were to rival and establish them that manage IP addresses and DNS, that would be even more difficult to recover than if they built competing technological protocols. Vested interests would form, wanting to stick with one body or the other, making the politics of reconnection almost impossible.

So the problem of reconnecting these disparate networks into one global internet would be a political one, not a technical one, but it is often the political problems that are the most difficult to solve.

There are also steps towards a complete fragmentation of the Internet that could still have a significant effect on hindering the global flow of information – or the smooth functioning of the Internet in a pariah state.

Due to the nature of the Internet to create monopolies, some services have quasi-infrastructure type status. Amazon Web Services, for example, controls so much of the back of the Internet that banning a particular area causes major headaches. Likewise, cutting off access to github repositories would cripple many services, at least temporarily.

Russia has tried to mitigate this risk with official and public sites by requiring them to repatriate their data, use .ru domains and minimize the use of foreign service providers. During the panic of the week, some saw this as an instruction to all Russian websites, even leading to alarming (but so far unproven) articles suggesting that Russia was planning to shut itself down completely from the internet.

Other countries and groups have sought to reduce the global nature of the Internet – and not just autocracies. The EU has tried to demand that all data processed about its citizens be processed within its borders, a move that US tech giants have vehemently resisted.

Iran, meanwhile, has built national connections between its key online institutions, allowing it to operate a sort of functional internet for Iran should it need to cut itself off from the global network or be kicked off by an adversary.

But it is China that has perhaps the most famously complex relationship with the Internet. While Chinese-born tech companies often thrive in the West – just look at TikTok – almost all online services used by people in China are Chinese companies. The country also has a massive and regular form of online censorship, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China.

Charlie Smith* (a pseudonym for operating in China and being critical of its censorship policies) of GreatFire, which tracks censorship on the Chinese internet, says his relationship with the global internet has changed over time.

“In the beginning, the service level blocking was driven by pure censorship needs. The need to hide information about Xi Jinping, or to cover up a major disaster that can be directly attributed to the government,” he says. “But when those foreign websites were blocked, Chinese entrepreneurs realized that there were gaps in the market that could be filled.

“Not only have they filled those gaps, they have also helped create Chinese Internet companies that are just as valuable as their Western counterparts, even though these Chinese companies may not be well established outside of China.”

Thanks to these long-standing separate institutions, Smith argues that China could manage to be cut off from the internet, but it’s largely not in its best interest to do so.

“I think China could cut itself off from the global internet and probably would if there was a big enough domestic crisis… [but] I truly believe that China will continue to rely on the global internet. The Chinese diaspora is all over the world. No one wants to be disconnected from home. Companies will still be dependent on selling their products abroad.”

China, on the other hand, occupies high positions in the various governing bodies of the internet – as befits a country with more than a billion internet users – and for the time being is trying to slowly bend the standards, rules and protocols to their liking.

A splinternet remains very possible – driven by politics rather than technology – but for now everyone seems eager to hold on and try to push the fragile status quo in their favor, not least because it seems like the internet could could break, it could turn out to be beyond repair.

James Ball is the global editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and author of “The Tangled Web We Weave: Inside the Shadow System That Shapes the Internet”

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