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Recurring Threat of Splinternet: From China to Russia

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Recurring Threat of Splinternet: From China to Russia

Recent years have witnessed a recurring threat of “splinternet”. This notion that initially gained traction due to the US-China tug of war has taken a new turn with the increased Russian attempts at controlling the internet in the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis. Although there are states that relentlessly censor cyber content and restrict internet access for social or political reasons, advanced state control causing disintegration of the internet is now on the cards. The worldwide web is splitting into delinked clusters that exist in parallel but are either unwilling or unable to connect any longer. The repercussions of such virtual Balkanisation are historic, affecting global unions, data firms and users.

The idea behind the internet was to create a global village that would go beyond national boundaries. However, given the stringent state-level policies, trade wars, and discontent with big tech firms, the worldwide web seems to be on the brink of being splintered into tinier spheres of state-wide networks. In such a scenario, data will have a crucial role in the magnitude of fragmenting of the internet. Data governance will be the point of debate, with distinct cyberspaces generating the issue of interoperability.

Today, there is an increasing demand that tech firms abide by country regulations in many states, particularly regulations on extracting and sharing information and on lawful speech. Moreover, various countries stress that tech firms need to join forces with the national security bureaus to share data on potential felons and political adversaries or make such data directly accessible to the state bureaus.

The idea of bifurcated cyberspace with one splinter led by the US and the other by China began circulating due to Sino-US political rift. This divide was observed with the initial blockage of Western content leading to the use of a different set of apps in China. According to Chinese leadership, “internet sovereignty” has already materialised at various avenues whereby countries decide what content their people can or cannot access. However, the usage of different apps is still adaptable. The real issue lies at the crucial level of technology standards which ensure interoperability of technologies and transfer of data. This issue arises as states come up with their separate, parallel internet due to the fear of data theft and for controlling what their people can see.

Some major outstanding issues regarding internet fragmentation in terms of interoperability will be toggling standards, data storage, transfer and protection.

Complying with standards of data privacy is a challenging task in this era of information boom. Tens of states currently have data localisation laws, per which the data on the citizens need to be stored nationally, putting in jeopardy the flow of data across boundaries. Various states and regions have augmented restrictions in cyberspace, ranging from Iran to Brazil. Similarly, India aims to bring about a bill on data protection that faces fierce criticism from social media platforms and privacy specialists. Likewise, North Korea has gone to the length of restricting the internet to foreigners and top-tier officials. For the masses, the state is operating a state-level intranet called Kwangmyong that can be accessed by a limited number of nationals for scientific and government-centric material.

In the same vein, Russia taking down social media platforms showcases how crucial it considers the part of these fora in augmenting opposition toward the state’s attack on Ukraine. The scenario reflects the extent the country has reached to create a “splinternet” that will separate Russia from the framework of the worldwide web. It will enable the Russian state to curb dissenting voices and keep closer tabs on conversations. Like Iran, Russia is turning into a “digital pariah” country. Tech pandits in the West believe that the Russian state has created a “digital iron curtain” like the Great Firewall of China.

As Russia blames the Western states for propagating disinformation, it has wholly obstructed Facebook and Instagram on account of “extremist activity”. While Moscow is also near putting a thorough block on Twitter, various platforms have willingly stepped away from Russian cyberspace. These include Netflix, TikTok, Apple, and Microsoft, among others. In order to circumvent this virtual iron curtain of the Russian state and access “reliable” news portals, common Russians are opting for parallel internet or splinternet. Apart from VPNs to open blocked webpages, the masses employ radio, messaging apps with end-to-end encryption, and email for communication.

Thus, such state actions for exercising control increase the danger of the internet splitting on a geopolitical basis, thereby putting masses in certain countries in virtual isolation. With an increasing number of states enacting data privacy frameworks, most policymakers will inevitably recommend data localisation, suggesting, albeit falsely, that storing data within a country’s boundaries is the best way to ensure data privacy.

Some major outstanding issues regarding internet fragmentation in terms of interoperability will be toggling standards, data storage, transfer and protection. In a scenario where the world actors ranging from China to Russia are increasingly looking to maintain their data privacy, it is crucial to look for a middle ground where all states can store their data. It will not only protect data but will also safeguard existing standards and data transfer. A somewhat geopolitically “neutral” location like the United Arab Emirates can be selected as a centre for data storage. Otherwise, various parallel internets or “internet sovereignty” is going to complicate the scenario in the long run as these parallel networks will either be unable or unwilling to connect with each other.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan serves as a Senior Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. Holding an MPhil in International Relations from the National Defence University, she also occasionally teaches at esteemed public sector universities.

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