Politics

Russia's Ukraine War Raises Specter of an Online Splinternet

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What's happening

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is accelerating the national fragmentation of the internet's foundations and services, an idea called the splinternet.

Why it matters

The splinternet makes it harder for individuals, companies and others to use the internet, undermining the most powerful communication tool humanity has invented.

What's next

Political and social pressure could further isolate ordinary Russians trying to use the internet, though an outright severing of Russia's internet access appears unlikely.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is creating new cracks in the world-spanning foundation of the internet.

Since Feb. 25, the day after Russia began an assault on its neighbor, Moscow has made it harder for citizens to reach Facebook and Twitter. Separately, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok have limited access to Russian state-owned media in the European Union at the request of governments in the 27-country bloc.

Russia has also exercised the power of its Sovereign Internet Law, which President Vladimir Putin signed in 2019. The law is designed to help the Russian internet survive any Western attempt to cut it off, but it also centralizes state network control so that the government can take actions like censoring sites or hobbling social networks.

The increasing fragmentation of the internet, a phenomenon commonly called the "splinternet," reflects the differences in how countries treat both low-level technology that shuttles data around the planet and higher-level applications, such as search engines and messaging apps. Increasingly, a patchwork of differing national rules threatens to cripple one of the most powerful means of connection and communication that humanity has created.

If the splinternet trend continues, the internet will be replaced by "a bunch of national islands that are sometimes connected to other places," said Andrew Sullivan, chief executive of the Internet Society, a nonprofit seeking to promote an open, global, secure and trustworthy Internet.

Overall, the internet still works as originally designed, an interlinked collection that now includes more than 32,000 smaller networks run by entities like internet service providers, tech giants, universities and governments. Technology standards govern how your emails and Instagram photos traverse these networks, hopping across routers and switches linked by fiber optic lines, radio links and copper cables.

The technologists who invented the internet and created many of its most influential companies have fought fragmentation for years. For example, the Internet Society, the European Commission, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and European internet registry overseer RIPE pushed back against a Chinese call for centralized internet standards, which the internet pioneers considered antithetical to the network's distributed ethos. The most powerful manifestation of the splinternet is China's Great Firewall, an internet monitoring and control system the country uses to block companies like US social networks or content like Hong Kong protest information.

And on Wednesday, one important organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, rejected a Ukrainian request to undermine Russia's internet abilities by cutting it off from internet data-routing technology like the ability to use .ru internet addresses. The internet's decentralized design means ICANN doesn't have the technical ability to do so, but also, the organization must remain neutral to ensure it has global trust, said CEO Göran Marby in ICANN's response.

"We take actions to ensure that the workings of the Internet are not politicized, and we have no sanction-levying authority. Essentially, ICANN has been built to ensure that the Internet works, not for its coordination role to be used to stop it from working," Marby said.

Now, however, some restrictions are coming from liberal democracies like the EU. However well intentioned, every regional change adds new complexity, cost and usage barriers to the internet.

Different countries, different internet rules

As with many industries, governmental restrictions vary around the world. Europe and California created their own privacy laws; China imposes top-down government censorship; India has banned Chinese apps such as TikTok, WeChat and Weibo; former President Donald Trump attempted to ban TikTok and WeChat; and Russia forced the ejection of a voting app from Google's and Apple's app stores.

Russia's war in Ukraine is changing the rules again thanks to government actions and corporate policies against problems such as disinformation.

After Russia's invasion, the European Union's effort to "ban the Kremlin's media machine in the EU" meant Facebook, Microsoft and TikTok restricted access to Russian state-controlled media, notably RT and Sputnik.

The moves came after similar though smaller actions had been taken. For example, Russia restricted access to Facebook and hobbled Twitter for some users, and Facebook and Twitter restricted ads on Russian state channels. Google's YouTube also reportedly curtailed Russian state-owned media ad revenue and reduced the likelihood their videos would be recommended.

Russian law requires larger streaming video services to carry state-run media, although Netflix refused to do so because of the Ukrainian invasion, according to The Wall Street Journal. US sanctions blocked Apple Pay and Google Pay for some Russian bank customers.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's vice prime minister, wants more. On Feb. 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, he called on Apple CEO Tim Cook to stop selling Apple products and services in Russia and to block Russians from using its app store. "Modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks, multiple rocket launchers ... and missiles," he tweeted, and Apple granted at least some of his wish.

Internet fragmentation at the deeper level

The internet's plumbing is key to its global nature. Two technology standards, DNS (the Domain Name System) and BGP (the Border Gateway Protocol), control how phones, PCs, servers and network equipment communicate. DNS governs translation of human-readable names into the numeric Internet Protocol addresses actually used to route data, for example turning wikipedia.org into 208.80.154.224. BGP lets one network broadcast the names of the others it's connected to.

A vivid illustration of their power occurred last year when a configuration error involving DNS and BGP wiped Facebook off the internet.

DNS and BGP also figure into Russia's internet sovereignty law, through which the government controls on how networks in Russia interconnect offer a tool to hamper Facebook, VPNs or other services.

Some people would like to use internet standards to target Russia. That includes some Ukrainian officials seeking to cut Russia's internet connections, Rolling Stone reported.

Such a move would be difficult, since the internet is designed to route around severed links and networks aren't defined geographically, the Internet Society's Sullivan says. 

Experts recoil at the idea, in part because it would mean ordinary Russians would only have the state as a source of information about the Ukrainian invasion. "Access to the Internet ... should never be weaponized," tweeted Jim Cowie, leader of economics analysis firm DeepMacro.

Cutting off Russia from the internet is unlikely to win support from two key organizations that are integral to DNS operations — RIPE and its overseer, ICANN — judging by comments from people affiliated with the organizations.

"The means to communicate should not be affected by domestic political disputes, international conflicts or war," RIPE's executive board said in a Feb. 28 statement. Remaining neutral means RIPE can be "trusted as authoritative and free from bias or political influence. Failure to adhere to this approach would jeopardize the very model that has been key to the development of the Internet in our service region."

Fundamentally, hobbling the internet in any location undermines its value to everyone, everywhere, Sullivan argues. "Human society is better because of our ability to connect with people who are very different from us."