Russia is almost isolated on the Internet. What does this mean for the future of the Internet?

Russian writer and journalist Andrei Soldatov used to consider his country the most digitally connected in Europe. These days, he can hardly recognize the Russian Internet.

Websites containing a .ru domain have been online only intermittently since the invasion of Ukraine. American technology companies such as Microsoft and Oracle have stopped selling software there. Many Russians cannot pay for the private network apps they use to get around government censorship of sites like Facebook, after Visa and Mastercard halted operations there.

“Russia relies heavily on online services. Now, these things are falling apart,” said Soldatov, author of “The Red Network” on the Kremlin’s battles over online surveillance.

Russia has entered three weeks of testing the Internet has never seen before: a major global economic power almost isolated on the Internet after international sanctions cut many services from abroad and the Russian government severely tightened Internet speech and access within its borders.

The way the situation worked is likely to shape the future of the Internet, not just for ordinary Russians but also for the collective understanding of what was supposed to be a global network, not a network divided by a “digital iron curtain”.

Experts said Russia is likely to turn to China to buy software and hardware if it is cut off from US and European products for too long. Russia may have to search for enough physical connections for Internet traffic if neighboring countries or non-Russian companies reject traffic passing over land-based fibre-optic cables.

The fiber-optic cables and mobile phone networks that make up the bowels of the Internet have been generally apolitical, with few exceptions, but Europe’s largest land war in eight decades challenges that idea.

“We didn’t have all these layers of politics that interfere with the simple technical operation of these networks,” said Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the Internet Society, a nonprofit organization founded in 1992 to promote the Internet based on its original ideals, international cooperation and the free flow of information.

Sullivan said the Russian war in Ukraine was “a very strong reason” in favor of some kind of response, but said he was concerned about the precedent.

“The more we import those outside concerns, the more likely the network will be disrupted for other political reasons,” he said. “Once you open that door, there’s plenty of reason to imagine a network operator might get disconnected.”

It’s a tension that’s always been a part of the internet: created by US military researchers, but California activists — including a former lyricist of the Grateful Dead — have built myths around it that the internet will be a global power and globalization for good.

Diplomatic maneuvers

Ukraine lobbied for Russia’s isolation online as a way to pressure President Vladimir Putin to stop his invasion. It even asked ICANN, the non-profit organization that manages Internet domains, to shut down .ru, a request that ICANN said went too far.

“ICANN is built to ensure that the Internet works, not to use its coordinating role to prevent it from working,” CEO Göran Marby wrote in his response.

But the situation suggests that in the future the Internet could be divided along national borders, with the government of each country holding what might amount 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 give Internet providers the ability to block any website or app of their choosing.

Karen Kornbluh, former US ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a non-profit organization that supports stronger US-Europe relations, said.

“In the long term, Russia wants to be able to cut off access to Signal,” she said, referring to an app for secure and encrypted messaging.

The competing visions of the Internet were played out in a United Nations election campaign in which one candidate is American and the other is Russian. At a conference in September, 193 countries will choose the next head of the United Nations’ communications arm, the International Telecommunication Union, which balances a proposed Internet protocol backed by Russia and China.

The Biden administration has also added diplomatic force to the international battlefield online, and announced a new Office of Cyberspace and Digital Policy last year that will be headed by an ambassador.

Concerns about the emergence of “splinternet”, or the balkanization of the web, have been gaining momentum for other reasons in the past few years. The Trump administration unsuccessfully sought to ban two popular Chinese apps, TikTok and WeChat, in 2020.

For Russia, the isolation was shockingly quick. Yandex, the largest technology company in Russia and operator of both the best Russian search engine and the best taxi hailing service, has stated that it is considering transferring 800 employees to Israel. Two directors have resigned, and the company has warned that it may not be able to pay its debts.

“It’s a sign of how desperate things have become,” Soldatov said in a phone interview from London. He said Yandex has been a source of pride for Russia’s technology sector. “Now it’s been destroyed, and no one knows what to do about it.”

Soldatov said that many of the IT professionals he knows in Russia are leaving for other countries or sending their children to live abroad, far from increasing repression under Putin. The emigration of people in general is believed to have been in the thousands.

The list of US and European tech companies leaving Russia is long: Google has halted ad sales, Netflix has suspended, Amazon has cut shipments, Apple has pulled products from its online storefront in Russia, and other companies have announced similar moves.

The biggest exception has been social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which have not only been opted out, but are also fighting the Russian government to survive as a lifeline for uncensored information. YouTube, another opposition forum, is still not banned, but experts are wondering for how long.

“Please don’t cut off Russia from Facebook,” Soldatov said. “It’s the only space where you can have some kind of uncensored discussion and you can talk about political news and not feel like you’re being spied on by the Russian security services.” (Virtual private networking apps, or VPNs, allow people to hide their location and often avoid government restrictions.)

It’s a role that helps polish what has been a spotty record of social media’s relationship with democracy, a responsibility that US tech companies have welcomed.

“Social media is bad for dictators,” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook’s parent company Meta, told CNBC at a conference last week.

Whatever happens to the Russian Internet, Western powers must strive to ensure that Russians can read and listen to different viewpoints — and not just via Shortwave radio broadcasts.

“It would not be useful to isolate Russian citizens and leave them only with state propaganda that incites them to hate Ukrainians,” Krabieva said.

“At the same time again, we hope that Russian civil society will be resilient,” she said. “They were already living under oppression, including digital oppression, and over the past couple of years this has really increased, and people have found ways to adapt.”

over quarrel?

Battles over government censorship are 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 internet providers connect to the global internet by buying bandwidth in bulk from a handful of large companies, and paying by volume. Rostelecom, a Russian internet services company, buys from about six companies, according to Kentik, a company that monitors internet traffic, and if one or more companies stop selling, the service could slow to a crawl depending on how much slack is in the system.

Washington, DC-based Cogent Communications said it would stop selling the service to Russia, while Louisiana-based Lumen Technologies said it intended to follow suit.

“I’ve never seen this before. I’ve never heard of this before,” said Doug Madhuri, Director of Internet Analysis at Kentik. “Overall, the internet has been able to float above the fray. We’ve had wars, and most in the industry feel there is good reason to leave the internet alone.”

The difference this time, Madhuri said, was the US and European response unit, which included other unprecedented measures, such as a partial ban on SWIFT, the global network of banks.

“This is sweeping and categorical – the amount of economic war to get to the goal, to do everything but shoot a Russian soldier,” he said.

But Madhuri also said that as of Monday, his company had seen little evidence in its traffic analysis of cutting Russian connections to Cogent or Lumen, raising the question of how far they could go in severing ties with Russia.

Mark Molzen, director of global issues at Lumen, said in an email that the company does not provide any services in Russia and that its physical network there is not connected. However, he added, Lumen was serving internet providers “outside Russia that route traffic to the country”.

Cogent said in an email that it had terminated services for customers in Russia to reduce the “potential for them to be sabotaged and used in cyberattacks or other offensive activities.” But the company added: “Because the Internet is by nature a distributed system, traffic from Russian carriers may relay the Cogent network via an indirect connection through another provider.”

Not like Tonga

Regardless, Russia has touchpoints to its south and east that will keep it somewhat connected, even if service is slow, said Nicole Staroselsky, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.

“You won’t be Tonga,” she said, referring to the South Pacific country where an undersea volcanic eruption knocked out internet completely in December. It took five weeks before specialist ship workers were able to repair the submarine cable to Tonga.

“Many countries rely heavily on submarine cables and international internet traffic to operate, and this is much less for Russia,” she said.

Putin has considered decoupling Russia from the internet since at least 2014, and has spent years lobbying for a “sovereign internet” to be made more independent of other countries through domestic programs. Russia even has its own set of Microsoft-style office software, but experts said the efforts did not meet Putin’s goals.

A Russian official said last week that his country had no plans to cut off the Internet.

There are other problems for Russia, such as the search for switches, routers and other devices. At least one bank had begun stockpiling equipment before the sanctions were imposed. The typical life cycle for such parts is two to three years, said Paul Barford, a professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin.

“In the medium term, there could be a serious impact on their ability to maintain record levels of connectivity,” he said.

Barford said Russia may consider buying Chinese alternatives, but for now, the United States has threatened Chinese manufacturers with consequences if they intervene. Taiwan, a major chip maker, is bound by international sanctions against Russia.

Experts said that building internal Internet controls like those in China to monitor and censor traffic may be tempting for the Russian government, but doing so would take years of effort, vast resources and talent that Russia does not possess.

“Russia could develop something like this if there is a will to do so over time,” Barford said. “But it’s very difficult to do, especially if people are not allied behind him – if there are people who are subversive in any way.”