Editorial: Can Putin stop the Internet?

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Editorial: Can Putin stop the Internet?

Tim Cole: Editor Smart Industry 2018

Tim Cole is the editor of Smart Industry – the IoT Business Magazine. His latest book,
“Wild Wild West – What the History of the American Wild West Teaches Us About the Future of the Digital Society” has just
been published in German by Vahlen/Beck.


A couple of years ago, I wrote a book entitled Management Challenge Internet which was well-received by the press. In a review, the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung went so far as to call me the “itinerant preacher of the German Internet.” While I enjoyed the compliment, I also thought it ridiculous. Is there any such thing as a German Internet, I asked myself – a network only for Germans? Of course not.

It turns out I was wrong. A country really can cut itself off from the Internet. China has been trying for years to stop its citizens from accessing Western content on the web – but the “Great Firewall of China” is nothing to what Russia is contemplating. The State Duma, Russia’s tightly controlled parliament, is considering proposed legislation, supported by President Vladimir Putin, that would disconnect the Russian Internet, officially called Runet, from the rest of the world. The official reason is state security because the Duma is worried about America’s cybersecurity strategy, which it perceives as threatening. The bill being discussed, it says, is just about strengthening the nation’s online infrastructure and making it safe
from sabotage by the US military.

Russia has been slowly severing its ties to the Internet for quite some time now. Following the Arab Spring uprising and waves of domestic protests in the winter of 2011/12, Russian authorities began intensifying online censorship and surveillance. Facebook and Twitter are under scrutiny by Russian media watchdogs and it is believed that it will only be a matter of time before they are forced to leave the country. It looks increasingly as though Russia may succeed in seceding from the global network. The only problem is the technology. The Duma contains relatively few computer scientists and network specialists, so the wording of the bill was left vague. The only thing that is certain is that cutting loose will be expensive, which worries Russia’s state auditors. Domestic providers say that simply shutting down international connections would cause Russian networks to go down. A brief shutdown in April was meant as a stress test to see just how resilient those local networks are and how much Internet traffic could slip through the cracks. Nation states, especially those with an autocratic form of government, are increasingly showing willingness to exert greater authority over their own portions of the Internet, which can lead to shutdowns. In January, for instance, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo turned off its Internet during a highly contested presidential
election.

Nobody knows what the long-term effects of Russia’s Big Disconnect will be. Today, the Russian Internet is truly global, notes the Russian IT security specialist Andrei Soldatov in a blog post. Not only is the country connected by many dozens of crossborder fiber optic cables, with over 30 operators owning them, but Russian Internet companies built and own huge data centers in Europe, for instance in Amsterdam Will banks, hospitals, or airports be cut off? How many websites will stop working? After all, most web pages rely on multiple servers, many of them in other parts of the world. A news site, for example, may run on an Amazon Web Services cloud server and include links to Google tracking software and a Facebook commenting plug-in located outside of Russia. “Every page is made of 1,000 different things. If you’re running a website in Russia, you’d have to figure out where everything is coming from,” says Andrew Blum, the American author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.

Users outside of Russia should be worried, too. What about web traffic from other countries being routed through Russia? What will it mean for the Internet of Things, which is based, after all, on the concept of total connectivity? In fact, IoT presents a formidable challenge to Russian efforts to totally control their own Internet. As users start connecting to fridges, TV sets, or garage doors, the harder it will become to monitor or cut off the connection. If a user can start a Skype phone call on a smartphone and continue talking on their TV set, how many lines and operators are involved?

The Russian authorities are seriously underestimating the size of the challenge they face in trying to pull the plug on the Internet. Technology will, hopefully, prove more powerful than even Putin in the end.

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