For years, countries have spoken in vague terms about creating domestic internets that could be isolated from the world at will. Now we’re seeing some begin to execute that vision. Last month Iran announced that its "national information network"—essentially a domestic internet—is 80 percent complete. Earlier this year, Russia launched a major initiative to build a domestic Russian internet, purportedly to defend against cybersecurity threats—though also a likely expansion on the Kremlin’s desire to control the flow of information within its borders.
With Russia and Iran spearheading a new level of internet fragmentation, they’re not just threatening the global network architecture (cables, servers) or working to allow the government to greatly control information flows and crack down on freedoms; their actions could also inspire others to follow suit and create geopolitical implications extending far beyond those two countries’ borders.
Let’s look at another country that has tightened control over its internet. China has long been the gold standard for internet censorship. Its Golden Shield Project, originally conceived as a surveillance database to strengthen police control, now manifests in the sophisticated Great Firewall. The government filters what information flows into the country as well as what requests are sent out using techniques like deep packet inspection and IP blacklisting.
Many thought this kind of internet splintering, with different kinds of content served to different countries, was the worst it could get. The New York Times editorial board has written about contrasting internet spheres in Europe, China, and the United States. Google’s Eric Schmidt has spoken about a bifurcation between a Chinese and non-Chinese internet (the latter led by the US). Indeed, the scale, technological sophistication, and economic influence of Chinese internet censorship is unprecedented. And it goes beyond China’s borders; Beijing wants to rewrite the rules of the global internet as well.
Yet for all of this noise, the internet “fragmentation” here is quite superficial—there are alterations to information flows on top of internet architecture, yes, but not alterations to the architecture itself. China still relies upon the likes of the global domain name system to manage web traffic. Its government has yet to permanently cut or unplug major internet routing points. The fragmentation is occurring on the surface level of the net, rather than on the lowest levels. In fact, filtering information rather than halting its flow is what enables Beijing’s delicate balancing act of content control with the economic benefits of internet openness.
Russia and Iran, however, are pursuing something different—a much deeper kind of internet fragmentation, one that may be less reversible and more attractive to countries who want rigid control over information.
When Vladimir Putin signed a bill in early May to create a domestic Russian internet, the law encompassed not just increased government authority over internet exchange points (IXPs) that route global traffic in and out of Russian borders, but policies like the build-out of a national domain name system, which is overseen by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet regulator. It’s aiming at a whole new level of Russian cyber sovereignty. Further, because the RUnet is meant to operate independently from the global net, this and other measures will likely involve physically cutting or moving cables and/or altering internet routing protocols to limit the traffic that comes into or out of the country.
Iran, meanwhile, has reached 80 percent completion of its so-called national information network. Tehran, like Moscow, hopes to reduce its country’s reliance on the global network through one that can be domestically operated. Censorship pervasive on the Iranian internet is already coupled with measures that double the cost of accessing foreign news sites, to incentivize citizens to use the domestic network—incentives that will only grow stronger should more domestic isolation take hold. As with Russia, claims about better defending Iran from foreign cyber threats have also been cited here as justification. Others argue that sanctions have played a role as well.
These two countries’ decisions to build isolated domestic internets represent a new form of internet fragmentation—one poised to be far more physical than what we’ve seen before. While today citizens in net-censored countries can often use virtual private networks and other tools to circumvent filters, that could become impossible if their domestic internets are disconnected from the global one. In turn, this will only accelerate global crackdowns on internet freedom and allow authoritarian regimes to consolidate power. But there are also significant geopolitical implications far beyond the borders of Russia or Iran.
For one, this may influence other countries wanting to assert control over the internet within their borders. Our research at New America on the state of global internet governance shows that 50 countries—which we call the Digital Deciders—have yet to clearly align themselves with a "global and open" or a "sovereign and controlled" internet model. As internet governance decisions are increasingly shaped at the national level rather than in international bodies, these countries’ decisions may influence the future of the global internet as we know it.
Governments looking to exert even greater control over their citizens online—for instance, by limiting the effectiveness of censorship bypass tools—may want to pursue this deeper form of internet fragmentation. Altering the architecture of the internet itself (while a heavier lift) could provide much deeper internet control than just leveraging content filtering tools. Governments looking to better protect their countries from cybersecurity threats, meanwhile, may also find reason to pursue the kind of deep internet fragmentation that Russia and Iran are spearheading; limiting the connection of your country to the globe, under the guise of stopping foreign cyberattacks, is arguably an attractive option for many policymakers around the world.
This may also hasten the extent to which countries are willing to manipulate global internet protocols, such as the Border Gateway Protocol that routes global internet traffic. If a country is largely or entirely disconnected from the global network, that could arguably diminish reservations about collateral effects of traffic manipulation. It may also limit the extent to which an internet protocol manipulation could be directed back at the perpetrator, although the centralization of internet controls could produce vulnerabilities in other ways for these countries.
If Russia and Iran are any indication, the internet fragmentation we see today is nothing compared to what’s coming. There are great technical challenges ahead that may hamper such efforts, yes, but these pursuits will still have wide ramifications. For nations seeking to balance the economic benefits of the internet with regulation of online information flows, the Chinese model of filtering on top of the net is still perhaps a better approach. But for those looking to really suppress information or protect themselves from foreign cyber threats, these deeper, less reversible forms of internet fragmentation are a more powerful solution.
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