International Technology

Russia’s Ukraine War Raises Specter of an Online Splinternet

March 2, 2022

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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.CNET DAILY NEWS

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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 expand internet access. 

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 Ripe Labs 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.

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.

WAR IN THE INTERNET ERA

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.

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