Are We Facing the Splinternet?

One of the consequences of the war between Russia and the Ukraine is that Russia has largely stopped participating in many large worldwide web applications. Russia has blocked Facebook and Twitter. Other applications like Apple, Microsoft, TikTok, Netflix, and others have withdrawn from Russia.

The European Union is in the process of trying to block Russian-generated content such as the state-owned news outlets of RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik. There are discussions of going so far as block all Russian people and businesses from EU search engines.

Russia has responded by declaring Meta, the owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, to be an extremist organization. This has also led the Russian government to withdraw its participation in organizations that set international policies such as the Internet Council of Europe. The EU countered by suspending Russia from the European Broadcasting Union.

There is a new phrase being used for what is happening with Russia – the splinternet. In a full splintenet scenario, Russia could end up being totally separate from the rest of the world as far as participating in the Internet.

There are already countries that don’t fully participate in the worldwide web. North Korea has blocked participation in much of the web. China and Iran block a lot of western content. However, these countries still participate in supporting the general structure and protocols of the Internet, and not all western applications are blocked.

The folks from the worldwide governing bodies that oversee Internet protocols are concerned that Russia, and perhaps China and Iran could decide to fully withdraw from the web and develop their own protocols for use inside the countries. If the countries that have peeled off from the rest of the web don’t maintain the same protocols, then communications with the rest of the world eventually becomes difficult or impossible.

This would have a drastic impact on the web as an international means of communication. There are huge amounts of digital commerce between these countries and the rest of the world over and above social apps. Commerce between these countries and the world depends on email, messaging apps, and collaboration platforms. People and businesses in these countries participate in digital meetings in the same manner as the rest of the world. The economic impacts of large countries effectively withdrawing from worldwide e-commerce would be immense.

This is something that we’ve seen coming for many years. For example, Google and Facebook located servers in Russia so that content generated in Russia would stay in the country and not be stored in servers and data centers outside the country.

A Russian withdrawal from the Internet would be far more drastic than Chinese censoring of web contact – it would cut communications with the outside world to zero. It’s hard to even imagine the impact this would have on Russian businesses, let alone cutting the ties between the Russian people and everybody else. This would create a digital Berlin Wall.

It doesn’t seem likely that having Russia or China withdraw from the web would have much impact on how the rest of the world uses the web. It would mean that citizens in those countries would not benefit from the newest innovations on the web. But most countries already today understand how important the web is for commerce, and for most countries, that’s a good enough reason not to tinker with something that works.

From my perspective, the whole world suffers if folks stop participating in worldwide communications. The web is the great equalizer where folks with similar interests from around the world get to know each other. But we live in a world full of politics and controversy, so it’s probably inevitable that this will spill eventually over to the Internet, like it does to many other parts of the world economy.

Broadband Satellite Issues

One of the most interesting aspects of serving broadband from low-orbit satellites is that it brings issues related to space into the broadband discussion. Space issues were less important for high earth orbit satellites that sit 20,000 miles above the earth. Other than an occasional impact from sunspots, there wasn’t much of note. But there are two recent events that highlight our new focus on low-earth orbit satellites. I would never have imagined a decade ago that I would be interested in these topics in terms of the impact on broadband.

The first is a piece of legislation introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Roger Wicker (R-MS). The legislation is called the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act. The bill is intended to begin the development of a technology called active debris removal (ADR) that would be used to remove dangerous debris from low earth orbit.

The risk of space debris has been well documented by NASA and others. There are over one hundred million pieces of debris orbiting the earth today. These range in size from dust-sized up to out-of-service satellites and rocket boosters. Space will be getting a lot more crowded as the industry plans to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites in the coming years. Space is going to get crowded.

So why is debris a problem? The issue was described by NASA scientists Don Kessler in 1978. He postulated that as mankind put more objects into orbit that the inevitability of collisions would increase and that over time there would be more and more debris. This is easy to understand when you realize that every piece of debris is circulating at over 20,000 miles per hour. When objects collide, even more debris is created, and Kessler postulated that there would eventually be a cloud of debris that would destroy anything in orbit, making low-space unusable.

The legislation would fund research into different technologies that can be used to clean debris, with NASA tackling some of the trials. The hope is for an eventual system that scrubs space of debris as it is created to keep the valuable low-orbit space usable.

In other news, President Putin of Russia has threatened to destroy Starlink and other satellites that are helping Ukraine in the war between the two countries. Targeting satellites as part of war is an idea that has been used by Hollywood for years. The first such movie I remember is Moonraker, the James Bond movie that sent the British secret service agent into space.

In September, a Russian diplomat said at the United Nations that satellites could be legitimate military targets. He argued that civilian satellites that provide broadband might be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty that provides for only peaceful uses of satellite technology. He is obviously aiming his comments at Starlink, although in a few years, there will be multiple companies in the same category.

Russia has already been targeting Starlink with cyberwarfare hacking to try to corrupt the satellite software. It’s been reported that Russia was also looking for a way to identify the location of the satellite receivers on the ground.  But it was clear from recent threats that Russia is hinting at some method of crippling or destroying satellites in orbit.

The earth has become massively reliant on satellite technology. It’s now becoming a source of broadband, but there are many other vital uses such as GPS technology, weather forecasting, studying and tracking resources like water and minerals, and numerous other uses.

The idea of attacks on satellites is scary. This might range from some sort of hunter satellites that attack other satellites or more indiscriminately through something like nuclear blasts that would disable all electronics. But the investment in satellites is huge and would not easily be replaced. The bigger question raised is if it is worth spending money on satellites that can be destroyed.

It’s likely that the threats are just rhetoric because every country depends on satellites for a lot of everyday functions. But countries have done insane things in wartime before, so it’s not off the table.

Disintegration of the World Wide Web

The BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which represent the emerging major economies of the world are planning to create their own DNS routing. DNS (Domain Name System) is the large database that associates IP addresses with specific web site or with physical hardware like routers or computers. There is currently one worldwide DNS system that is used to route all Internet traffic.

Russia approved this change in October and set a deadline of August 1, 2018 to have the alternate DNS system online. The reason Russia gives for the change is that the West has the power to disrupt their Internet by changing the current DNS system. While that’s true, the US no longer controls DNS routing and handed over the operation of DNS last year to ICANN, an international coalition of many countries, including the BRICS members.

But there is a lot more to this than just fear of having DNS cut off to a given country and that excuse is mostly just a political cover story. A BRICS DNS system would give the member companies total control over the Internet routing within their country. Many countries already curtail and block some Internet usage today, with the most prominent example being the Great Firewall of China. The Chinese control web usage by monitoring and intercepting traffic at Internet hubs.

But control of DNS is a more foolproof way for a country to curtail web usage. If they block a website from the DNS system then it no longer exists within the country and there is no backdoor way to get to such web sites. Controlling the DNS gives a country complete control of what’s allowed on the web. DNS control would make it easy to block a company like Google, a topic such as politics or pornography, or even traffic from an entire other country from participating in the web within a country.

Controlling the DNS also would allow a country to maintain web sites within the country that could not be reached from outside the country. That would be a safer way for a country to keep information away from cyberhackers, or to just hide websites from foreigners.

Another benefit to controlling DNS is that it can be used to control the dark web. DNS could be used to make the dark web disappear within a country. Or it could alternatively be used to allow it, but make it open to inspection. A country controlling the DNS could also establish a new dark web specific to their country to be used by the government or anybody else they favor.

The BRICS countries say that they would only initially use an alternate DNS to use in case of some DNS emergency, like an external cyberattack. But the it’s going to be hard for regimes like China or Russia to pass up the temptation to take more control over the web and over their citizens. For example, controlling the DNS would allow for an easy way to squelch on-line dissent.

This change would be the first real splintering of the web. Until now come countries like China have blocked web sites and restricted access to some parts of the web. But taking control of DNS lets a country go further to micromanage the web within their country. And that ability is going to tempting to any repressive regime.

Once this happens there is really nothing to stop other countries or regions to also create their own DNS. And that means we no longer would have a worldwide web, but rather a series of separate webs that share selectively with each other. That would disadvantage the whole world in countless ways.

Russia and the Internet

Russian flagWe’ve all known for a long time that the Chinese have their own version of the Internet within the country. The Golden Shield, which the west has dubbed the “Great Firewall of China” is a huge government apparatus that closely monitors and edits everything that happens on the Chinese Internet.

And now we are perhaps seeing Russia starting down a similar path. There is a new Russian law that takes effect on September 1 that is going to start fundamentally changing the way the Internet works in that country. The law basically requires that anybody that obtains information online from a Russian citizen must store that data on servers that are physically located in Russia.

This law was ostensibly created to protect the country against the spying of the US government and the commercial tracking done by US corporations. But of course, this also provides a great tool for the Russian government to monitor everything going in and out of the country.

American companies like Google and Facebook are going to have to locate servers in Russia and abide by the Russian rules if they want to have Russian citizens using their services. Some of them will certainly do that, but you have to wonder in the future how many start-ups will make the effort to do this, and over time one would expect Russia to get more and more separated from the US Internet companies.

Probably of more concern are the various European companies that have a lot more Russian users than do the US companies. This change effectively walls Russia off from the rest of the world including its nearby neighbors and trading partners.

It’s unlikely for now that the Russians will go as far as the Chinese. The Chinese completely censor large parts of the content on the web including pornography, anything pro-democracy, religious content such as anything having to do with the Dalai Lama, anything having to do with Taiwan, anything having to do with protests inside the country, and anything else they decide to block. But still, for the Russians to know that their content is not leaving the country they are going to have to look at everything closely.

One would assume that the Russians will use the same techniques used by the Chinese to enforce the new law. This includes such things as IP blocking, DNS filtering and redirection, USL filtering, packet filtering, VPN recognition and blocking, and active IP probing.

I just wrote last week how the basic architecture of the Internet promotes freedom. While this architecture was originated largely in the US, over time much of the rest of the world has joined into the governance of the web and the basic architecture is now accepted by most countries.

But obviously Russia, China, and a few other countries have a very different view of what the web ought to be, and largely for totalitarian purposes of controlling their citizens. Anybody who has read any science fiction, even back to Orwell’s 1984, understands how the Internet could easily be turned into a tool of control.

What we are likely to see with Russia is the same thing we see today with China. Outside companies often come to China to create a presence and to expand their footprint, but over time many of them leave in protest against the control they are subjected to.

It’s unlikely that Russia and China will have much influence in changing the web architecture for everybody else. What is more likely is that their citizens will not partake in the newest innovations on the web, for the good or bad they will create. But most countries already today understand how important the web is for their industries and for most countries that’s a good enough reason not to tinker with something that works.