The world is currently witnessing a war that will have an impact that goes beyond Russia and Ukraine. The global response by world leaders through sanctions will prevent Russia from accessing technologies developed in the US and Europe. As a result of this action we are likely to see the splinternet or further balkanisation of the internet which simply means the world will have a divided internet. Splinternet”, is this idea that the internet, long imagined as a global online commons, is becoming a maze of national or regional and often conflicting rules.
This is contrary to what the internet was intended to become, a global network. China is already outside of the global internet due to the great firewall of China. Russia has been preparing for this moment. In 2019 Russia began testing a national internet system that would function as an alternative to the broader web.
Speaking then to the state-owned news outlet Tass, President Putin explained that this was purely a defensive play. Runet (Russian Internet), he said, “is aimed only at preventing adverse consequences of global disconnection from the global network, which is largely controlled from abroad. This is the point, this is what sovereignty is — to have our resources that can be turned on so that we would not be cut from the Internet.”
This involved rerouting its ISPs and unplugging Russia from the global domain name system (DNS) so traffic cannot be rerouted through any exchange points that are not inside Russia.
The DNS is basically a phone book for the internet: when you type, for example, “google.com” into your browser, your computer uses the DNS to translate this domain name into an IP address, which identifies the correct server on the internet to send the request. If one server won’t respond to a request, another will step in.
The actual mechanics of the DNS are operated by a wide variety of organisations, but a majority of the “root servers,” which are its foundational layer, are run by groups in the US. Russia saw this as a strategic weakness and wanted to create its own alternative, setting up an entire new network of its own root servers.
When this test was conducted the Kremlin indicated that the purpose was to make Russia’s internet independent and easier to defend against attacks from abroad. It was also designed to assist Russia resist sanctions from the US and the EU, and any potential future measures.
As Russia now faces the wrath of the world these measures will prove to be useful in shielding the region from any intended technology harm.
This is not good for the broader internet community. For developers of technology products it means the beginning of an end to deploying one solution for the world. It means each product will have to be created for each part of the world that has its own internet.
If the global internet is beginning to break apart it also means each region has to start thinking about what it would mean to have a regional internet.
Russia did it for the moment like this one. Why would Africa consider this approach if there’s no imminent threat? Sovereignty may be the key reason for Africa to consider building its own internet.
Currently the internet is dominated by powerful forces and by default the most powerful countries in the world. To some extent dominant apps and other technologies have the power to dictate how the world operates from transport movement, to working conditions and economic activity. If Africa wants to have full control of these activities and develop its own digital economy, a regional internet may be the way to go.
China has accelerated its “Made in China 2025” strategy to ensure it owns and builds critical technologies. Current developments around Russia add fuel to the internet balkanisation agenda. As a result, other nations will have to decide which camp better serves their national interest, since the only companies that produce this technology are bound to those countries (US and China). This will establish a pattern which will be repeated across other critical technologies.
The face of the internet is changing forever and it’s important that technology players understand the implications of this war. Going forward it won’t be business as usual and countries as well as tech businesses ought to restrategise in line with these changes.