Splinternet: will Russia pull itself off the internet?

Ukraine’s representative on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently asked that Russia’s top-level domains (TLD) including .ru and .su be revoked along with their Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificates.

They also asked the regional internet registry for Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia (RIPE) to withdraw Russia’s right to use their assigned IPv4 and IPv6 addresses, and to block their root DNS servers.

The result would have been to effectively disconnect Russia from the internet.

In explaining why ICANN and RIPE both rejected the requests, Andrew Sullivan, president and chief executive officer of the Internet Society, called the potential result “Splinternet”. Cutting Russia off would not only shatter interconnection, but it would also create a fragmented internet, split along geographical or political boundaries. Sullivan saw this as a “slippery slope” and the “antithesis of how the internet was designed and meant to function.”

Others like the RIPE Executive board argued that the “means to communicate should not be affected by domestic political disputes, international conflicts or war.” Paul Twomey, a former ICANN president and CEO, tweeted that keeping the internet operating in Russia was “the best way to ensure that sites carrying diverse views to Russian audiences are effective.”

In response, the Ukrainian government has taken another approach. They have been actively and successfully campaigning to have technology firms cut ties with Russia. There is a long list of companies who have shut down or suspended their Russian operations: Google, Apple, Facebook (Meta), IBM, Oracle and a host of others.

Cryptocurrency trading platform Coinbase has blocked 25,000 wallet addresses in Russia. Traditional financial platforms – Visa, Mastercard, American Express, PayPal – have all withdrawn.

Digital certificates that browsers require to ensure safe encrypted traffic are not being renewed in Russia. The Russian government is working to replace these with their own Russian issued certs, but those are only good if they are recognized by internet browsers. So far, Google, Microsoft and Firefox have not accepted these new Russian certificates.

Finally, two of the main backbone internet providers have done what ICANN and RIPE would not – they have cut the main internet trunk links to Russia, at least the ones they control. Lumen Technologies and Cogent have thus severed Russia’s ties to the internet. This doesn’t totally isolate the country, but it will have a major impact not only on Russian data but also telecom services. It may also disturb a number of other countries allied with Russia.

Who is breaking up with whom?

Russia’s response is, if sources are correct, to disconnect themselves from the internet.

A free Belarusian news service called NEXTA, based in Warsaw, Poland, released what purported to be a Russian policy document which stated that by Friday, March 11, all Russian websites must be switched to the Russian Domain Name System service (DNS).

One reason this leaked information appears credible is that Russia already requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to route traffic through servers managed by Roskomnadzor, the Russian telecom regulator. In effect, Russia is already equipped to disconnect from external connections and create a “Russian only Internet”. Moreover, they tested this capability in 2019. They have even have a name for the network: RuNet.

RuNet would effectively block all access not explicitly permitted by Russia. Presumably the network would retain some external connections and allow permitted site traffic, although what that would be is uncertain.

Not a first

As much as the internet regulators feared a “slippery slope”, the reality is that Russia wouldn’t be the first country to have its own version of the internet. Iran and North Korea also have severe restrictions on external internet access, and China built its own insulated internet many years ago with the “Great Firewall”.

Fang Binxing, the father of China’s Great Firewall, is reported to have visited Russia in 2016 to assist them in developing RuNet. According to author James Griffith, Binxing wanted to “make the Russian firewall much more similar to the Chinese one.”

For its part, Russia has denied that it is planning on cutting itself off, saying that recent tests have only been a way of trying to protect Russian websites from foreign cyber-attacks.

The impact of a Russian only internet

What would a Russian only internet do? It would effectively shut down social media like Facebook and Twitter. But that could be a moot point; Russia already blocks or throttles social media sites. Moreover, the social media giants such as Meta (Facebook), Google, Twitter and Apple have all effectively pulled out of Russia.

It would also deal a death blow to anything that is left of independent media. Most independent media is shut down in Russia, and what remains communicates from nearby countries via the internet. While the internet is open, Russians can still use VPNs, but not without risk. VPN use in Russia is legal, although accessing officially blocked content is not. They can also use the TOR network, the open-source system for anonymizing online communication also known as the onion router. Russia has the second largest user base for TOR in the world, with over 300,000 daily users. Dissidents and forces opposed to the Putin regime depend on these methods for access to uncensored information and to communicate with the outside world without being tracked by the authorities.

It raises a host of questions

If Russia were to disconnect from the internet, what would the impact be? To those committed to a universal free and open world wide web, it is a setback. Other than that, the impact might be minimal. For those in the west it might even have some positive results.

Corporate communications would be disrupted enormously. All of the communications tools of the global corporation – Teams, Zoom, Webex, Google Meetings and Docs, Slack and other chat programs — these and a host of collaboration tools and systems would be disrupted or shut down. Realistically, today that only affects the handful of international companies that might choose to remain in Russia. That list gets smaller every day.

In a software-as-a-service (SaaS) based world, software is no longer stored on local computers but is downloaded from a central server. If these are withdrawn or shut down, processing grinds to a halt. Most western companies could not function for even a few days, or in some cases even for hours, without internet supplied software. How long Russian companies can function is a real question. Presumably, there are some desktop versions of software that Russians will have access to, but even these will be problematic. They will no longer receive security updates. Week by week they will be more vulnerable to attack. Bugs will not be fixed. No new features will be added. And as we saw when hackers were able to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, no network, even one that is insulated from the global internet, is immune to attack.

On the plus side, Russia has been a known haven for cyber-criminals and ransomware gangs. Those attacks, even using TOR and the dark web, will be easier to spot and block if they can’t be hidden in the mass of other Russian traffic. These groups might decide to work outside of Russia, but the protection they have enjoyed within Russian borders would no longer be there.

Recently, there have been stories about the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies in Russia. Russians have been reportedly flocking to “stable coin”, which has a fixed conversion to a currency such as the US dollar. Cryptocurrencies would allow them to hold US dollars as the ruble becomes almost worthless.

That might be useful for those who were already holding cryptocurrencies, but for those who try to convert their Russian money today there is a problem. The ruble is almost worthless already; its value is less than one cent in US dollars.

Russian oligarchs and even the Russian government might use cryptocurrency to defy sanctions or hide their overseas assets. That becomes more difficult with the internet effectively shut down and fewer and fewer options available. The participation of any major cryptocurrency in evading sanctions is sure to bring severe penalties and restrictions from governments in the west.

Will a mainstream cryptocurrency want to risk western government sanctions? Will western investors stay loyal to a cryptocurrency they feel is helping to devastate Ukraine? When over 70 per cent of US citizens will pay more at the gas pump to assist Ukraine, cryptocurrency will not get a pass on this or fly under the radar.

Lastly, Russia will be increasingly isolated, not just in real life, but in all aspects of the digital transformation that all economies are going through. The emergence of this new digital order will continue to transform every aspect of our lives in the same way that the mobile era has — maybe even more intensely. Innovation and transformation will create new wealth and new opportunities. Behind their firewall, a generation of Russians will be left behind.

We’ve seen this before. For years before the fall of the Berlin wall, the ever-popular Levi’s blue jeans were coveted by Russian youth. They were smuggled into the country at great cost and at great risk. It was illegal to smuggle them in, yet so many Russians defied the ban that it became impossible to hold back the tide of change. The government failed miserably with its attempt to have its own brand of jeans; the youth of Russia wanted to have what western teens had. Russia finally gave in and imported tens of thousands of pairs of Levi’s.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. The tactics of the last generation may succeed in the short run and keep an aging and conservative population under control, but holding back a younger generation is another thing entirely.

The Ukraine crisis has accelerated our economic transformation in the same way that the COVID pandemic changed how we work. Governments all around the world are scrambling to accelerate their progress to a greener digital economy that needs less and less of what Russia has to sell – oil and gas. Without fully participating in the digital economy, where will Russia’s future wealth come from?

Expecting that a younger generation will let that opportunity of the future pass them by has always been a losing bet. The idea that they will choose a “call of duty” in real life (where they get shot) over a “Call of Duty” in an immersive game world is an extremely bad bet.

In the end, it is by no means certain whether will Ukraine win the ground war. But even if Russia wins that war, they may lose the long game. Ukraine may have forced Russia to retreat into an isolated island, held back in a resource-based economy while the world around it moves into the next phase of the industrial revolution – the digital age.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO of a great company - IT World Canada - Canada's leading ICT publisher.

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