Russian writer and journalist Andrey Soldatov considered his country to be the most digitally connected country in Europe. These days, he barely knows the Russian Internet.
Websites with the .ru domain have been online only intermittently since the occupation of Ukraine. US technology companies such as Microsoft and Oracle have stopped selling software there. Many Russians are unable to pay for the private networking software they use to bypass government censorship of sites like Facebook after Visa and Mastercard suspended transactions.
“Russia is very dependent on online services. Now they are falling apart,” said Soldatov, author of the book “The Red Internet,” about the Kremlin’s battles over online surveillance.
Russia is going through three weeks of a test the internet has never seen before: A major economic and global power has been virtually isolated online after international sanctions cut off many services from abroad and the Russian government tightened restrictions on online speech and access within its borders.
How things play out will likely shape the future of the internet, not just for everyday Russians, but for the collective understanding of what a global network is, rather than a network divided by a “digital iron curtain.”
Experts said that if Russia is cut off from US and European products for a long time, it will turn to China to buy software and hardware products. If neighboring countries or non-Russian companies refuse traffic over terrestrial fiber-optic cables, Russia may struggle to find enough physical links for Internet traffic.
The fiber-optic cables and cellular networks that underpin the Internet have generally been apolitical, with few exceptions, but Europe’s biggest land war in eight decades challenges that notion.
“We didn’t have all the layers of politics that got in the way of the simple technical operation of these networks,” said Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the Internet Society, which was founded in 1992 to strengthen the Internet based on its original ideals. such as international cooperation and the free flow of information.
Sullivan said Russia’s war in Ukraine was “obviously a very strong reason” in favor of some kind of response, but said he was concerned about precedent.
“The more we import these external concerns, the more likely the network will be disrupted for other political reasons,” he said. “Once you open that door, there are many reasons you can imagine that the network operator could cut the connection.”
It’s a tension that’s always been part of the internet: US military researchers created it, but it was California activists, including the former Grateful Dead lyricist, who mythologized the internet as a universal, globalizing force.
Ukraine has lobbied for Russia’s online isolation to pressure President Vladimir Putin to end its invasion. It even asked ICANN, the nonprofit organization that manages Internet domains, to block .ru, a request ICANN said went too far.
“ICANN was created to make the Internet work, not for its coordination role to stop it from working,” CEO Göran Marby said in response.
But the situation points to a possible future internet divided along national borders, with each country’s government equivalent to a customs office for imported internet content. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia and China were pushing a new, top-down internet protocol that would allow internet service providers to block any website or app they choose.
“They want to be able to move not to one big global network, but to different networks where you can track your citizens more easily,” said Karen Kornbluh, a former US ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The German Marshall Fund, a non-profit organization that supports stronger ties between the United States and Europe.
“In the long term, Russia wants to cut off access to Signal,” he said, referring to the secure and encrypted messaging app.
The United Nations election campaign, where one candidate is American and the other Russian, has demonstrated the competing views of the Internet. At a conference in September, 193 countries will choose the next head of the UN’s telecommunications division, the head of the International Telecommunication Union, which is evaluating a proposed Internet protocol backed by Russia and China.
The Biden administration has also added diplomatic power to the international fight over the internet, last year announcing a new Office of Cyberspace and Digital Policy to be headed by the ambassador.
Concerns about the emergence of the “Splinternet,” or balkanization of the Internet, have been growing in the last few years for other reasons. The Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to ban two popular Chinese apps, TikTok and WeChat, in 2020.
The mainstay of social media
For Russia, isolation was shockingly fast. Yandex, Russia’s largest technology company and operator of both Russia’s top search engine and top travel service, has said it is considering moving 800 of its employees to Israel. Two directors resigned and the company warned that it could not pay its debts.
“This is a sign of how desperate things are,” Soldatov said in a telephone interview from London. According to him, Yandex was the pride of the Russian technology sector. “Now it’s destroyed and nobody knows what to do about it.”
Soldatov said that many information technology specialists he knows in Russia go to other countries or send their children abroad to avoid the growing repressions under Putin. In total, the migration of people is thought to be in the thousands.
The list of US and European tech companies leaving Russia is long: Google stopped ad sales, Netflix suspended its service, Amazon stopped shipping, Apple pulled its products from its Russian online storefront, and other companies announced similar moves.
The big exception has been social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which have not only been removed, but are fighting with the Russian government to remain the lifeblood of uncensored information. Another forum for dissent, YouTube, remains unblocked, but experts wonder for how long.
“Please don’t cut off Russia from Facebook,” Soldatov said. “It’s the only place where you can have some kind of uncensored discussion and talk about political news and not feel like you’re going to be spied on by Russian security services.” (Apps for virtual private networks, or VPNs, allow people to hide their location and often evade government restrictions.)
It’s a role that helps polish social media’s tarnished record for its relationship with democracy, and a responsibility that US tech companies welcome.
“Social media is bad for dictators,” Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook’s parent company Meta, told CNBC at a conference last week.
Natalia Krapiva, technology legal adviser at Access Now, a nonprofit online human rights group, said that whatever happens on the Russian Internet, Western powers should try to ensure that Russians can read and hear diverse opinions. not just through shortwave radio broadcasts.
“It will not be useful to isolate Russian citizens and leave them alone with state propaganda that incites them and calls them to hate Ukrainians,” Krapiva said.
“At the same time, we hope that Russian civil society is stable,” he said. “They already live under repression, including digital repression, and it’s really increased in the last few years and people have found ways to adapt.”
Above the fray?
The fight over government censorship is not new or unique to Russia. What is different now is how geopolitics can affect the routing of internet traffic.
Generally, a country and its local ISPs connect to the global Internet by buying wholesale bandwidth from several large corporations, paying for volume. Russian Internet provider Rostelecom buys from about six companies, and if one or more of them stops selling, service could slow down depending on the gap in the system, according to Kentik, which monitors Internet traffic.
Washington-based wholesaler Cogent Communications said it would stop selling services to Russia, and Louisiana-based Lumen Technologies said it planned to follow suit.
“I’ve never seen it. I’ve never heard of that,” said Doug Madory, Kentucky’s director of internet analytics. “In general, the Internet has been able to overcome the struggle. We’ve had wars, and most people in the industry think there’s good reason to leave the internet alone.”
Madory sees the difference this time as a combination of the US and European response, which has included other unprecedented actions such as a partial ban on SWIFT, the global banking network.
“It’s far-reaching and decisive — understanding the scale of the economic war is about doing anything but shooting at a Russian soldier,” he said.
But Madory also said his company on Monday saw little evidence in its traffic analysis that Cogent or Lumen intercepted Russian telecoms, raising questions about how far they would go in severing ties with Russia.
Mark Molzen, Lumen’s director of global affairs, said in an email that the company has no service in Russia and that its physical network there is down. However, he added that Lumen serves ISPs that “redirect traffic from outside of Russia into the country.”
Cogent said in an email that it was suspending its services to customers in Russia to reduce the possibility that they could be “undermined and used for cyber attacks or other abusive activities.” But the company added: “Because the Internet is a distributed system by its very nature, traffic from Russian carriers can cross the Cogent network through an indirect connection through another provider.”
Not like Tonga
In any case, there are points of contact that will keep Russia somewhat connected, even if service is poor in southern and eastern Russia, says Nicole Starosielski, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.
“It’s not going to be Tonga,” he said, referring to the South Pacific nation where an undersea volcanic eruption completely knocked out internet service in December. It took five weeks before the specialist ship’s crew could repair the undersea cable to Tonga.
“Many countries are so dependent on undersea cables and international internet traffic to function, and that’s even less true for Russia,” he said.
Putin has been considering disconnecting Russia from the internet since at least 2014, and he has spent years trying to make its “sovereign internet” more independent from other countries through homegrown software. Russia even has a suite of Microsoft-style office software, but experts say those efforts fall well short of Putin’s goals.
A Russian official said last week that the country has no plans to shut down the Internet.
There are other challenges for Russia, such as finding replacement switches, routers and other equipment. At least one bank has started stockpiling equipment before being hit by sanctions. The typical life cycle of such parts is two to three years, says Paul Barford, a computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin.
“In the medium term, there could be a serious impact on their ability to maintain standard communications capabilities,” he said.
Barford said Russia may be considering buying replacements from China, but for now the US has threatened Chinese manufacturers with consequences if they interfere. Major chipmaker Taiwan is complying with international sanctions against Russia.
It may be tempting for the Russian government to build internal internet controls like China’s to monitor and censor traffic, but that would require a lot of effort, resources and talent that Russia doesn’t have, experts say.
“Russia could develop something like this over time if it has the will to do it,” Barford said. “But it’s very difficult to do that, especially if people are not united behind it – if there are people who are subversive in any way.”