The Curious Case of Splinternet: Why do Russia and China want separate internets?

Saishya DuggalLaw

The Curious Case of Splinternet Why do Russia and China want separate internets

Chinese activist Ai Weiwei once proclaimed, “The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It is as simple as that.” This sentiment backed the conception of the Internet – an unbounded global village where everyone could access everything. This understanding is also heavily responsible for its subsequent success. Lately, however, the notion of uncontrollability has come into question. What we witness instead has popularly been deemed as the “Splinternet”. It is an idea that argues for fragmenting or splintering the global internet into small pieces of national networks. In these networks, there is no guarantee of freedom and unrestricted access. To an extent, cyber balkanisation is already happening in parts of the world. In this piece, we analyse two such cases: China and Russia.

Case 1: China

When China exited a long-running period of its isolationist policy, access to the Internet was vital in connecting it to the rest of the world. The 1990s saw a massive surge in internet users in the country. However, the government closely monitored and controlled this surge.

Developments before 2000

China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) is responsible for the overall Internet supervision in the country. In 1997, it used decrees requiring all internet users to register with their neighbourhood police bureau within 30 days of signing up with an internet service provider (ISP). It also enacted Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection and Management Regulations. These regulations provided guidelines reinforcing the government’s control over the content being created and transmitted. Around this time, MPS also set up computer investigation units.

In 1998, MPS undertook the Golden Shield project. This project aimed to integrate a gigantic online database with an all-encompassing surveillance network. This surveillance network would consist of speech and face recognition, CCTV, smart cards, credit records, and internet surveillance technologies. This project took 8 years to complete. The Great Firewall of China is a subject of the Golden Shield Project. It allows the Chinese government to inspect all data entering the country’s cyber space and block destination IP addresses and domain names.

After 2000

By December 2000, 22.5 million internet users existed in China. This number almost quintupled in the five years that followed. Around this time, the country’s domestic tech giants also originated. The BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) trio laid the foundation for China’s separate internet. They adhere to the state’s stringent policies while providing critical services to the users.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006; however, its market share could not compete with Baidu. Baidu is a Chinese search engine that commands most of the market. Google was in a constant tussle with the Chinese government. It had to censor its search services, and the government occasionally blocked YouTube. Eventually, Google shut down its search engine services in the country in 2010.

Alibaba is a Chinese e-commerce behemoth that launched Taobao. It is an online shopping platform that outdid eBay in the country. AliPay is China’s most popular digital payment platform. The tech giant took control of Yahoo China in 2006.

Tencent, a Chinese multimedia company, developed the WeChat app in January 2011. It is an instant messaging platform that engages in mass surveillance by tracking user activity and censoring politically-sensitive information service-wide.

Recent developments

By 2011, China had nurtured domestic alternatives for most online platforms. For instance, it has its own Twitter-like microblogging platform called Sina Weibo. The following decade revolved around the country’s rejection of American technology and hostility towards foreign media outlets. Apart from YouTube, the government has banned Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many Google services. The United States, in turn, blacklisted the Chinese company Huawei in 2019.

In 2014, the country set up the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). Since then, CAC has continued to expand its scope to influence almost all internet companies in the country. For example, it conducted a cyber security review against DiDi, a famous ride-hailing company, resulting in a $1.2 billion fine. In 2017, the Cybersecurity Law tightened the noose around the network operators’ necks through several provisions. The law requires mandatoriy storing data on Chinese citizens in domestic servers unless permitted otherwise. Later in the same year, the government introduced the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. This plan seeks to turn China into the world’s leading AI developer by 2030.

Case 2: Russia

Roskomnadzor, established in 2008, lies at the heart of Russia’s online control. It is an agency under the Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media with extensive internet regulatory responsibilities. It operates with the help of the System of Operational-Investigative Measures (SORM). SORM is Russia’s legal intercept system whose surveillance has been extended to online traffic.

Early 2010s

Russia enacted the Internet Blacklist Law in 2012-13. This law allowed authorities to blacklist websites with inciteful and extremist content without trial. Since then, the law has been interpreted to favour the regime, punishing the websites which oppose the government. In the wake of the Crimea crisis in 2014, the Russian Security Council proposed taking the domains .ru, .su, and .рф (Russian Federation in Cyrillic) under state control. The council also recommended entrusting Roskomnadzor with blocking websites with a .ru domain without a court order.

2015 and later

In these years, Russia has passed numerous federal provisions to have sophisticated control over the Internet. Between 2015-16, the Yarovaya amendments required service providers to retain user information and metadata for a prescribed period. It became mandatory to store data of Russian users within Russian territory. LinkedIn was blocked in the country due to failure to comply with this legal requirement. In 2017, two federal laws prohibited VPNs and internet anonymisers from providing access to banned content in Russia. These laws also prohibited online messaging service providers from having unidentified users. Both these laws entrusted Roskomnadzor with the responsibility of implementation and execution.

In 2019, Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law came into effect. This law aimed to create a Russian segment of the global internet. Further, it allowed Roskomnadzor to centrally manage it in a crisis. It required internet service providers (ISPs) to install accessible technology like Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). DPI helps government control internet traffic by filtering and re-routing. This automatically prevented users from accessing blocked content. It mandated the creation of a national DNS and required service providers to inform Roskomnadzor of their network architecture.

Since 2021, Russia has been on a media crackdown that severely intensified after the country invaded Ukraine in 2022. The government’s control of the RuNet (the Russian part of the Internet) has transformed the nature of the content being received by Russians. In 2021, new federal laws defined social networks and mandated the removal of banned/illegal content in accordance with the provided guidelines. These guidelines apply to platforms with over half a million daily users. The authorities ordered the platforms to open Russian offices, failure of which could lead to hefty penalties.

After the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, Russia has criminalised any media coverage of “knowingly false information”. Russian courts have banned extremist tech giants like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google News. In one instance, Meta is accused of tolerating Russophobia. Lawmakers have proposed the creation of a Russian app store and approved a bill restricting Russian data abroad. Further, they allowed banks to transfer people’s biometric data to a Unified Biometric System (UBS) without their consent. Roskomnadzor clamped down on VPNs and demanded that media outlets use the words “special military operation” to describe the Ukrainian invasion. The government has also brought a draft law that seeks to end the use of foreign technology in its critical infrastructure by 2025.

Case Analysis: Why ‘Splinternet’?

Both China and Russia ranked poorly for internet freedom in 2022. The same holds true for their ranking on the global freedom index. Both countries have a ‘not free’ status. When digital communication technologies transform the state of an authoritarian regime, it becomes “networked authoritarianism”. The Internet opens avenues for political conversations in the country, and the government works overtime to censor and manipulate these conversations. For networked authoritarianism to work, Splinternet is the way to go. Essentially, Splinternet creates an almost alternate reality for citizens. It improves authoritarian governance while disconnecting a nation from the rest of the world and vice-versa. It is an all-encompassing framework of censorship that can transform the cognition of generations.

How does it affect the public?

In China, the Great Firewall affected 1.05 billion users as of 2022. Most of these users are unable to combat it. They remain in the dark about political developments threatening those in power’s political stability. In mid-2021, China banned 165 out of the top 1,000 most visited websites around the globe. International media outlets and independent Chinese outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan also made the list of blocked sites. 

China heavily monitors censored political topics like the CCP, the Tiananmen Massacre, Taiwanese independence, subjugation of ethnic minorities, etc. One of the most censored topics in China in the last few years was the Covid-19 pandemic. The government has periodically shut down its communication systems in response to critical political events. For example, Xinjiang saw a 10-month internet shutdown in 2009 after riots between Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi.

Unfortunately, many of China’s online intimidation victims are activists and individuals from marginalised communities. A Human Rights Watch report details how people in Tibet experience violence due to their online activities. The censorship also means that the number of journalists jailed in the country remains largely unknown.

The Russian model of online censorship is different from China. It relies more on repressive legal systems than the screening of information. However, it has been successful nonetheless. After the start of the Russia-Ukrain crisis, the country blocked 1.2 million internet resources, 5,300 IP addresses, popular online platforms, civil society websites, and renowned Ukraining websites. The government also blocked 20 VPN services to prevent users from accessing banned websites.

Transparency reports by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Yandex show an extreme number of content removal requests by Russian authorities in 2021. For instance, Yandex alone removed 149,549 search results, as asked by Roskomnadzor. In Russia, too, journalists face the threat of criminal prosecution. News outlets like Novaya Gazeta and Bell have started to self-censor themselves to prevent the initiation of any criminal action.

Case Conclusion: Is there hope still?

Although Splinternet seems like the future’s trajectory, all hope is not lost. Despite the draconian digital censorship imposed by both China and Russia in pursuit of Splinternet, citizens of both countries continue to cope with it. Chinese citizens have regularly tried to bypass the Great Firewall, though recent laws have cracked down on this circumvention. As Andrei Soldatov, author of The Red Web writes: 

“Today, the Internet is everyman’s platform. To control it, Putin would have to control the mind of every single user, which simply isn’t possible. Information runs free like water or air on a network, and is not easily captured. The Russian conscript soldiers who posted their photographs taken in Ukraine did more to expose the Kremlin’s lies about the conflict than journalists or activists. The network enabled them.”

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