Ukraine, Russia, and what is the Splinternet?
At the time of writing (9th March 2022) one of the most surprising things about the situation in Ukraine is how quickly things seem to have happened. Not necessarily the Russians' advance into Ukraine because that’s either ‘going to plan’ or ‘seems to have stalled’ depending on who you listen to. But the global support for sanctions and boycotts has been largely swift and, barring a handful of countries, unanimous.
Life imitating social media?
There has been pressure on global companies to throw their hand in and come down on one side or the other. Russia represents an enormous market for huge multi-nationals so companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have been comparitively slow to pin their colours to a mast. From a certain point of view, the response from all quarters has been quite ‘social media-like’, as in, opinions are totally binary, often with ‘facts’ invented, with nothing in between, and very little space or consideration for nuance. While we’re talking about social media, you could say that Russia is the first country to get ‘cancelled’. While it may be necessary to take this horrible situation at face value, anyone with any decent knowledge of European history will know that this conflict has been a long time in the making and the reasons for it happening are not straightforward.
There have, apparently, been calls for Russia to be completely removed from the internet altogether. ICANN, the organisation who are in charge of internet governance and assigning names (e.g. .com, .co.uk, .ru, etc.), have ruled this out as it would go against its philosophy of ‘One World, One Internet’. Similarly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation have agreed saying wartime is a bad time to mess with the internet and this kind of action would deprive people of the most powerful tool for sharing information. Online security company Cloudflare supports this viewpoint saying that ‘Russia needs more internet access, not less’. The fear is that that denying swathes of people access to information will be the thin end of the wedge and create a precedent for escalation.
Age of the Splinternet?
What is the Splinternet? There are fears that the conflict is a watershed in the concept of the global internet. Meta, Apple and Google have withdrawn services in Russia, and Russia itself has blocked Facebook and Twitter. There’s no real clue to say how long this conflict will last, so the question arises whether these services, and others, will ever return in Russia. Geopolitical commentators, such as Abishur Prakash, suggest that the conflict could reshape the internet. As territories are cut off, and countries developing their own internal internets, it could lead to a fragmentation of connectivity and the end of ICANN’s ‘One World, One Internet’ philosophy. Arguably, this has already begun in China with The Great Firewall and its own social media platforms such as Weibo. Now that Russia has been cut off from global platforms, will the Splinternet grow?
Digital Iron Curtain?
Russia is becoming increasingly financially isolated on a global level, it seems the country may become more economically dependent on China, at least in the short term. In answer to the question,’What is the Splinternet?’, Russia has been experimenting with its Runet for a quite few years now, apparently with Chinese assistance, so if the current digital isolation continues never to return, will Runet be rolled out in full?
One of the beauties of the internet stems from philosophies at its conception: The Information Superhighway. For all its faults (and there are undoubtedly many), the internet has brought countless benefits and brought people together around the globe. The fragmentation of the internet will reduce those benefits and separate people once again. We’re already facing the prospect of a New Cold War (I would say the old one never really went away), but are we also facing the prospect of a Digital Iron Curtain?
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