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.