Tensions are already rising between Russia and the United States over cyberattacks, NATO expansion and election interference, and now the two nations may be set to fight over Russia’s desire to create an alternate internet.
Russia’s longstanding plans could be set into motion on Aug. 1, when the country’s government reportedly plans on broaching the topic with other nations. For Moscow, an alternate internet would be an answer to its longstanding fears of American control over the web and allow a new level of oversight over content.
Although technically simple, experts say creating an alternate internet threatens to be a commercial and economic disaster. Yet just the fact that Moscow has ramped up its far-fetched digital dreams is a sign that no matter what kind of warm words may be traded between President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, hostile relations between the two Cold War adversaries are set to continue in cyberspace.
“Governments controlling the internet helps them control content,” said Chris Painter, the former top cyber diplomat at the State Department.
If Russia were to create an alternative web, Painter continued, they “lose the benefits of the internet. I don’t see how Russia can do this in a way that makes economic sense but it is emblematic of a government that wants more control.”
Last year, top Russian officials discussed creating an alternate internet with the BRICS group of developing nations that include Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, according to Russian outlet RBC. And on July 3, a top Russian official again threatened to create a parallel internet if the U.S. continue to allegedly interfere with foreign computer networks.
While the official, Ilya Rogachev, did not expand on his claim, the implication was clear: The red web may be coming.
The modern internet began as an American government research project but today is maintained by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. The body was created by the U.S. government but now operates as a nonprofit. That has not convinced Putin, who accused America of still operating the web, during a March interview with NBC.
“The United States control all the internet governance tools, all located on U.S. territory,” Putin said.
Plans for an alternative internet in Russia “have been on the books for the past several years and it has been dangled within the context of national security,” said Tanya Lokot, an assistant professor at Dublin City University. “More and more economic and defense capabilities are tied to the internet and they want to secure their infrastructure.”
Lokot said the Russian effort is tied to new anti-extremism laws that are intended to further silence dissent. “Internally it is part of a greater crackdown, where if you are online we will watch you.”
According to Russian media, Moscow has proposed creating an alternate server to collect domain names independent of ICANN.
But experts warned that a move to create a parallel internet is fraught with drawbacks. Russia’s business community is against the second web idea, according to Carolina Vendil Pallin, the deputy research director at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “The project is born out of fear that Russia could be cut off from the internet by the West, as a new form of sanction, and frustration that Russia is not listened to when it tries to promote its view of international information security,” she said.
Russia has more than 100 million internet users. Putting a precise number on exactly how much Russian internet traffic is devoted to sites outside the country’s borders is difficult, but it is thought to be anywhere from 10 to 30 percent.
At the same time, the Russian government has struggled to master the technical aspects of the web. In May, the government tried to block access to Telegram, a secure messaging application used by some 15 million Russians. But the Kremlin admitted that it accidentally blocked hundreds of unrelated websites as an unintended consequence.
Yet Russia is not the only country who has been embarrassed after blocking portions of the web.
The Chinese government has built a “great firewall” around its internet that severely restricts citizens access to websites. But even the masterminds of the system have struggled. In 2016, the architect of the Chinese government’s firewall, Fang Binxing, reportedly could not access websites during a university speech. The scene represents one of the largest risks of creating a paralell internet: losing access entirely.