|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Internet destruction to Nationalism and Despots
In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, ending 30 years of war
across Europe and bringing about the sovereignty of states. The rights
of states to control and defend their own territory became the core
foundation of our global political order, and it has remained
In 2010, a delegation of countries – including Syria and Russia – came
to an obscure agency of the United Nations with a strange request: to
inscribe those same sovereign borders onto the digital world. “They
wanted to allow countries to assign internet addresses on a country by
country basis, the way country codes were originally assigned for phone
numbers,” says Hascall Sharp, an independent internet policy consultant
who at the time was director of technology policy at technology giant Cisco.
After a year of negotiating, the request came to nothing: creating such
boundaries would have allowed nations to exert tight controls over their
own citizens, contravening the open spirit of the internet as a
borderless space free from the dictates of any individual government.
Nearly a decade on, that borderless spirit seems like a quaint memory.
The nations who left the UN empty-handed had not been disabused of the
notion that you could put a wall around your corner of cyberspace.
They’ve simply spent the past decade pursuing better ways to make it happen.
Indeed, Russia is already exploring a novel approach to creating a
digital border wall, and last month it passed two bills that mandate
technological and legal steps to isolate the Russian internet. It is one
of a growing number of countries that has had enough of the
Western-built, Western-controlled internet backbone. And while Russia’s
efforts are hardly the first attempt to secure exactly what information
can and can’t enter a country, its approach is a fundamental departure
from past efforts.
“This is different,” says Robert Morgus, a senior cybersecurity analyst
at the New America Foundation. “Russia’s ambitions are to go further
than anyone with the possible exceptions of North Korea and Iran in
fracturing the global internet.”
(Credit: Getty Images)
Russia's increasingly restrictive internet policies have sparked
protests across the country, including this demonstration in Moscow in
March 2019 (Credit: Getty Images)
Russia’s approach is a glimpse into the future of internet sovereignty.
Today, the countries pursuing digital “Westphalianism” are no longer
just the usual authoritarian suspects, and they are doing so at deeper
levels than ever before. Their project is aided as much by advances in
technology as by growing global misgivings about whether the open
internet was ever such a good idea to start with. The new methods raise
the possibility not only of countries pulling up their own drawbridges,
but of alliances between like-minded countries building on these
architectures to establish a parallel internet.
What’s wrong with the open internet?
It’s well known that some countries are unhappy with the Western
coalition that has traditionally held sway over internet governance.
It’s not just the philosophies espoused by the West that troubles them,
but the way those philosophies were baked into the very architecture of
the internet, which is rather famously engineered to ensure no one can
prevent anyone from sending anything to anyone.
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That’s thanks to the baseline protocol the 2010 delegation were trying
to work around: TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol)
allows information to flow with absolutely no regard for geography or
content. It doesn’t care what information is being sent, what country
it’s coming from, or the laws in the country receiving it; all it cares
about is the internet address at either end of the transaction. Which is
why, instead of sending data across predetermined paths, which might be
diverted or cut off, TCP/IP will get packets of information from point A
to point B by any means necessary.
It’s easy to dismiss objections to this setup as the dying cries of
authoritarian regimes in the face of a global democratising force – but
the problems that arise don’t just affect authoritarian regimes. Any
government might be worried about malicious information like malware
reaching military installations and critical water and power grids, or
fake news influencing the electorate.
(Credit: Getty Images)
Although governments may claim that internet sovereignty protects its
citizens from malware, many fear losing the freedom of the "open
internet" (Credit: Getty Images)
“Russia and China were just earlier than others in understanding the
potential impact that a massively open information ecosystem would have
on humans and human decision-making, especially at the political level,”
says Morgus. Their view was that a country’s citizens are just as much a
part of the critical infrastructure as power plants, and they need to be
“protected” from malicious information targeting them – in this case
fake news rather than viruses. But this is not about protecting citizens
as much as controlling them, says Lincoln Pigman, a Russia scholar at
the University of Oxford and a research fellow at the Foreign Policy
Centre think tank in London.
A sovereign internet is not a separate internet
Russia and China started talking publicly about the “sovereign internet”
around 2011 or 2012, as Russia’s two-year “winter of protest” was
beginning to take hold, and as internet-borne revolutions rocked other
authoritarian regimes. Convinced that these revolts had been stirred up
by Western states, Russia sought to stop disruptive influences from
reaching their citizens – essentially creating checks at its digital
But internet sovereignty is not as simple as cutting yourself off from
the global internet. That may seem counterintuitive, but to illustrate
how self-defeating such a move would be, one need look no further than
North Korea. A single cable connects the country to the rest of the
global internet. You can disconnect it with the flip of a switch. But
few countries would consider implementing a similar infrastructure. From
a hardware perspective alone, it’s close to impossible.
“In countries with rich and diverse connectivity to the rest of the
internet, it would be virtually impossible to identify all the ingress
and egress points,” says Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the
University of Wisconsin at Madison, who maps the network of physical
pipes and cables through which the global internet runs. Even if Russia
could somehow find all the hardware by which information travels into
and out of the country, it wouldn’t serve them very well to close these
faucets, unless they are also happy to be separated from the world
economy. The internet is now a vital part of global commerce, and Russia
can’t disconnect itself from this system without mangling its economy.
(Credit: Getty Images)
The internet in most countries relies on many physical entry points
(Credit: Getty Images)
The trick, it would seem, is to keep some types of information flowing
freely while impeding others. But how can this sort of internet
sovereignty possibly work, given TCP/IP’s notorious agnosticism?
The leader in separating problematic from authorised internet content
has traditionally been China. Its Golden Shield, otherwise known as the
Great Firewall of China, famously employs filters to selectively block
certain internet addresses, certain words, certain IP addresses and so
on. This solution is by no means perfect: it’s software-based, meaning
that programmers can design further software to circumvent it. Virtual
Private Networks and censorship avoidance software like Tor get around it.
More to the point, the Chinese system won’t work for Russia. For one
thing, “it relies heavily on the big Chinese platforms taking the
content down”, says Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert with US think
tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, whereas Russia is “more reliant
on US social media companies”.
Much of China’s advantage also comes down to the physical pipes its
internet is built on. China, suspicious of the new Western technology
from the get-go, only permitted very few entry and exit points to be
built from the global internet into its borders, whereas Russia was
initially quite welcoming of the internet boom and is now consequently
riddled with interconnects. China simply has fewer digital borders to
keep an eye on.
(Credit: Getty Images)
China's "Great Firewall" allows the government to to have some control
over what information enters the country, but it can be circumvented
(Credit: Getty Images)
So, Russia can’t afford to turn itself into a corporate internet. And it
can’t replicate China’s approach. Russia is therefore working on a
hybrid method that neither relies entirely on hardware nor on software –
instead messing with the set of processes and protocols that determine
whether internet traffic can move from its origin to its intended
destination. Internet protocols specify how all information must be
addressed by your computer, in order to be transmitted and routed across
the global wires; it’s a bit like how a Windows machine knows it can’t
boot up an Apple operating system. This is not one specific thing. “In
effect a protocol is a combination of different things – like data, an
algorithm, IP address – across different layers,” says Dominique
Lazanski, who works on international internet governance and consults on
One of the most fundamental of these is the DNS standard – the address
book that tells the internet how to translate an IP address, for example
220.127.116.11, into a human-legible internet address like bbc.co.uk, and
points the way to the server that houses that IP location.
It’s DNS that Russia has been setting its sights on. At the beginning of
April, the country was supposed to test a new method of isolating the
entire country’s internet traffic so that citizen internet traffic would
only stay within the country’s geographical boundaries instead of
bouncing around the world. The plan – which was met with skepticism from
much of the engineering community, if not dismissed outright – was to
create a Russia-only copy of the DNS servers (the internet’s address
book, currently headquartered in California) so that citizens’ traffic
would be exclusively directed to Russian sites, or Russian versions of
external sites. It would send Russian internet users to Yandex if they
typed in Google, or the social network VK instead of Facebook.
To lay the groundwork for this, Russia spent years enacting laws that
force international companies to store all Russian citizens’ data inside
the country – leading some companies such as LinkedIn to be blocked when
they refused to comply.
“If Russia succeeds in its ultimate plans for a national DNS, there
wouldn’t be any need for filtering out international information.
Russian internet traffic would just never need to leave the country,”
says Morgus. “That means that the only stuff that Russians – or anyone –
would be able to access from inside Russia is information that's hosted
inside Russia, on servers physically in the country. That would also
mean no one can access external information, whether that is their
external cash or whether it's Amazon to buy that scarf.”
Most experts acknowledge that Russia’s primary goal in doing this is to
increase its control over its own citizens. But the action may have
global consequences too.
(Credit: Getty Images)
Governments hoping to gain "digital sovereignty" must find a way to
control what information enters a country without blocking useful
economic transactions (Credit: Getty Images)
The approaches taken by Russia and China are too expensive for smaller
countries to emulate, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be influential.
“The spread particularly of repressive policies or illiberal internet
architecture is like a game of copycat,” says Morgus. His observation is
borne out by research done by Jaclyn Kerr at Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory. Authoritarian adoption of digital solutions that shape the
extent and type of Internet control they exert, she finds, is likely
driven by three variables. The first is just what’s available out there.
The second is whether the regime can afford to implement any of the
available options. The third variable – “the policies selected by the
states in the regime’s reference group” – is a kind of keeping up with
the Joneses that explains why it has been described as a game of
copycat: what policies have its buddies endorsed or chosen? This often
hinges on the attitude of the regime; are its friends open or illiberal
when it comes to internet control?
Regarding the first variable, Russia's neighbours, like the Central
Asian Republics, could certainly leverage Russia's architecture – like
the Russian DNS – to connect only to the RUnet version of the internet.
This would essentially expand the proposed borders of the RUnet to their
periphery, says Morgus.
The digital deciders
As regards the third variable, the list of countries that find
themselves attracted to more authoritarian internet governance seems to
be growing. Not all countries fall neatly into one or the other of the
“open internet” and “authoritarian repressive” peer groups when it comes
to how they treat their countries’ internet. Israel for example, lies
neatly between the two extremes, as Morgus and his colleagues Jocelyn
Woolbright and Justin Sherman pointed out in a paper published last
year. They found that over the past four years, “digital decider” states
– Israel, Singapore, Brazil, Ukraine, and India among others – have
drifted increasingly toward a more sovereign and closed approach to
information. The reasons for their drift are varied, but several of
these countries are in similar situations: Ukraine, Israel, and South
Korea, which exist in a perpetual state of conflict, have found their
adversaries weaponising the internet against them. Some experts find
that the strategic use of the internet – in particular social media –
has become like war. Even South Korea – despite its reputation as open
and global – has developed a groundbreaking technique to crack down on
illegal information online.
But can the deciders really copy China or Russia’s model? China’s
technological means to sovereignty is too idiosyncratic for smaller
countries to follow; Russia’s is not yet fully tested. Both cost a
minimum of hundreds of millions to set up.
(Credit: Getty Images)
India is considered one of the "digital deciders" that might influence
the fate of the internet (Credit: Getty Images)
Two of the largest “digital decider” countries, Brazil and India, have
long sought a way to deal with the global internet that relies neither
on the “open values” of the West nor on closed national intranets.
“Their internet and political values sit very much in the middle of the
spectrum,” says Morgus. For the better part of the last decade, both
have tried to come up with a viable alternative to the two opposing
versions of the internet we see today.
That innovation was hinted at in 2017, when the Russian propaganda site
RT reported that Brazil and India would team up with Russia, China and
South Africa, to develop an alternative they referred to as the BRICS
Internet. Russia claimed it was creating the infrastructure to “shield
them from external influence”.
The plan fell through. “Both Russia and China were interested in
pursuing BRICS, but the rest were less enthusiastic,” says Lazanski.
“Brazil’s change in leadership in particular derailed it.”
Belt Road Initiative
Some see the groundwork being laid for a second try in the guise of
China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China’s “21st Century silk road”
project to connect Asia to Europe and Africa by building a vast network
of overland corridors, shipping lanes and telecommunications
infrastructure in countries like Tajikistan, Djibouti and Zimbabwe.
According to estimates from the International Institute for Strategic
Studies in London, China is now engaged in some 80 telecommunications
projects around the world – from laying cables to building core networks
in other countries, contributing to a significant and growing
Chinese-owned global network.
(Credit: Getty Images)
Some countries may break away and build their own infrastructure that is
independent of the Western internet (Credit: Getty Images)
“There could be a very significant infrastructure element to these
plans,”says Sim Tack, an analyst formerly with Jane’s who now works with
the intelligence group Stratfor. One possibility is a scenario where
enough of these countries join Russia and China to develop a similar
infrastructure to a point where they could sustain each other
economically without doing business with the rest of the world, meaning
they could shut themselves off the Western internet. Smaller countries
might prefer an internet built around a non-Western standard, and an
economic infrastructure built around China might be the “third way” that
allows countries to participate in a semi-global economy while being
able to control certain aspects of their populations’ internet
experience. Tack, however, argues that such a “self-sustainable walled
off internet economy, while possible, is also extremely unlikely.”
Maria Farrell of the internet freedom campaign organisation Open Rights
Group doesn’t think it’s too far-fetched, though the separate internet
may take a slightly different form. The Belt and Road Initiative, she
says, offers a plug-and-play internet that gives “decider” countries,
for the first time, an option for getting online that does not depend on
the Western internet infrastructure.
“What China has done is put together a whole suite of not just
technology, but information systems, censorship training, and model laws
for surveillance,” she says. “It’s the full kit, and the laws, and the
training, to execute a Chinese version of the internet.” It’s cheap. And
it’s being sold as a credible alternative to a Western internet that
increasingly feels “open” in name only. “Nations like Zimbabwe and
Djibouti, and Uganda, they don’t want to join an internet that’s just a
gateway for Google and Facebook” to colonise their digital spaces, she
says. Neither do these countries want to welcome this “openness” offered
by the Western internet only to see their governments undermined by
espionage. Along with every other expert interviewed for this article,
Farrell reiterated how unwise it would be underestimate the ongoing
reverberations of the Snowden revelations – especially the extent to
which they undermined the decider countries’ trust in the open web.
“The poorer countries especially, that scared the bejesus out of them,”
she says. “It showed what we had all suspected was actually true.”
Just as Russia is working to reinvent DNS, the Belt and Road
Initiative’s plug-and-play authoritarian internet gives countries that
sign up access to China’s [bespoke] internet protocols. “TCP/IP is not a
static standard,” points out David Conrad, chief technology officer of
the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, which
issues and oversees major domain names, and runs DNS. “It is always
evolving. Nothing on the internet is unchanging.”
But their evolution is careful and slow and based on global consensus on
a single internet. If that were to change, TCP/IP might well bifurcate,
says Morgus. For well over a decade, China and Russia have been pushing
the internet community to nudge the protocol toward greater
identifiability, adds Farrell, a development that won’t surprise anyone
familiar with its mass adoption of face recognition for tracking its
citizens in the physical world.
But maybe the authoritarian countries have less of a job to do than they
“More and more Western countries are being forced to think about what
that means, sovereignty on the internet,” says Tack. In the wake of
recent election meddling, and the well-documented practice by Russian
governments to sow discord on Western social media, Western policymakers
woke up to the idea that an open and free internet could actually harm
democracy itself, Morgus says. “The parallel rise of populism in the
United States and elsewhere, coupled with concerns about the collapse of
liberal international order, saw many of the traditional open internet
sword-bearers retreat into their shells.”
(Credit: Getty Images)
Threats to the "open internet" continue to excite passionate responses -
but some experts believe that change is now inevitable (Credit: Getty
“It’s not about bad countries and good countries – it’s about any
country that wants to suppress communications,” says Milton Mueller, who
runs the Internet Governance Project at Georgia Tech University in
Atlanta. “The worst thing I’ve seen lately is the British online harms
bill.” This white paper proposes the creation of an independent
regulator, tasked with establishing good practices for internet
platforms to follow and punishments to mete out if they don’t. These
“good practices” limit the kind of information that would be familiar to
anyone keeping up with recent Russian internet laws: revenge porn, hate
crimes, harassment and trolling, content uploaded by prisoners, and
Indeed, the very multinationals that decider countries fear today might
be eager to be enlisted to help them meet their goals of information
sovereignty. Facebook has recently capitulated to growing pressure by
calling for government regulation to determine, among other things, what
constitutes harmful content: “hate speech, terrorist propaganda and
more”. Google is rather famously working to have its cake and eat it
too, by providing an open internet in the West (which it may open to
Western governments every now and again) and a censored search engine in
the East. “I suspect there will always be a tension between desires to
limit communication but not limit the benefits that communication can
bring,” says Conrad.
A separate internet for some, Facebook-mediated sovereignty for others:
whether the information borders are drawn up by individual countries,
coalitions, or global internet platforms, one thing is clear – the open
internet that its early creators dreamed of is already gone.
“The internet hasn’t been one globally connected thing in a long time,”
Sally Adee is a freelance science and technology writer. She blogs at
the science writing collective The Last Word on Nothing.
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