Russia: The Digital Pariah

Russia: The Digital Pariah

“Russia is rapidly joining the likes of Iran as a digital pariah state” – MIT Review

A recent report released in the MIT Technology Review has opined that war being carried out by Russia could lead to the creation of an irreversible split in the internet as we know it – a ‘splinternet’. While Russia disconnecting or being booted from the internet’s governing bodies will have several rippling global repercussions and hence warrants discussion today, the term ‘splinternet’ has actually been around for a while.

First used in 2001 in Washington D.C., researcher Clyde Wayne Crews described the concept as “parallel Internets that would be run as distinct, private, and autonomous universes” – exactly what is being discussed today.

Russia’s disconnect

Russia’s disconnect from the West seems to be ever-increasing, with social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter banned and further tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, TikTok, and Netflix all voluntarily withdrawing from the Russian market over the last few weeks as well.

The MIT Tech Review piece reads, that while “these are just services that use the internet, rather than the technologies or agreements that power it, more profound splits are on the cards–provoked by action on both sides. The moves have raised fears of a “splinternet”, in which instead of the single global internet we have today, we have a number of national or regional networks that don’t speak to one another and perhaps even use incompatible technologies.”

The Reaction

As a starting point, the European Union is currently almost seeking to wipe out Russian outlets from the internet, with new bans being placed on state-owned RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, the major media organisations being used to propagate propaganda. They have suggested both banning the websites as well as removing all results from search engines and social media platforms as well.

Whilst blocking services on the internet isn’t the same as blocking its underlying technologies, more ‘profound splits are on the cards’. Declaring Meta an ‘extremist organisation’ is certain to be one of them. Furthermore, Russia “is withdrawing from international governance bodies such as the Council of Europe and has been suspended from the European Broadcasting Union. If such moves were replicated with the internet’s governing bodies, the results could be seismic.”

The .ru split

Fears of a ‘Balkanised internet’, or a splinternet to divide the single global internet into a series of possibly incompatible smaller networks leading to possibly spell the end of the World Wide Web are today, widespread. The MIT Review opines: that “China and Iran still use the same internet technology as the US and Europe – even if they have access to only some of its services. If such countries set up rival governance bodies and a rival network, only the mutual agreement of all the world’s major nations could rebuild it. The era of a connected world would be over.”

Moves towards such a direction, especially with the Ukrainian government calling on ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the non-profit charged with maintaining the global stability of the internet, to suspend Russia’s access to the system – effectively blocking al ‘.ru’ sites from the internet, are only adding to existing fears.

Rebellion from the inside

Yet, CNBC opines that whilst on the cards, such a major move towards a China-esque internet model – perhaps the most restricted global internet model – may yet be a long way off. Russians today are quickly turning to Virtual private networks (VPNs) en masse to bypass the multiple restrictions being placed on their internet.

In fact, “the top 10 VPN apps in Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store in Russia collectively saw nearly 6 million downloads between Feb. 24, the day the invasion began, to March 8, according to data from SensorTower compiled for CNBC. This was up 1,500% when compared with the top 10 VPN apps in the previous 13-day period.”

Barron’s reports: “fortunately, we are already seeing good examples of what companies and governments can do in the dire circumstances Russia presents. Twitter recently followed Facebook and news services like the BBC and the New York Times in launching a dark-web version of its site so that Russians can access the platform despite their government’s blockade.”

These, among many of the acts of resistance being seen in the global concerted effort against Russia’s war on Ukraine is what will guide the course of the war in the coming days.

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