Imagine the Internet shuts down. You turn your router off and on, to no avail. Cellular data too, seems to have disappeared—momentarily a blessing—but slowly it becomes clear that your entire city is disconnected. Soon, rumors begin to trickle in through phone calls and sidewalk chatter: It’s the entire state; no, the whole country.
With credit cards and ATMs unable to connect, arguments erupt in the mounting lines at corner stores and pizzerias down the block. Brighter minds run to the bank to stock up on cash, where even longer and more chaotic lines culminate in several inhibited computer terminals and a diminishing supply of physical cash.
The frantic shouting of the lines is joined by the interminable honking harmonies of the horrific car traffic appearing on many streets now that the traffic-light infrastructure cannot receive its usual optimized updates through the Web. With a stranglehold on communication, public transit delays are eternal, and all flights are grounded. Will the Internet-dependent energy grid work properly through such a shutdown? You’ll soon find out. All the most hare-brained Y2K fears from the cable news of yore are realized in this scenario.
Russians, though, won’t have to imagine; they’ll be living out a version of it sometime in the next month, Kremlin’s orders.
Russia is planning to temporarily disconnect itself from the Internet in order to satisfy a bill in its parliament requiring that the country and its Internet service providers take steps to give Russia greater sovereignty over its Internet, named Runet, according to the RBK news agency. As part of the information-gathering process for the bill, Russia’s public and private Internet authorities have agreed to voluntarily unplug the country for a period of time.
Russia’s long-term goal is reportedly to keep all Web traffic involving interactions between Russian users from traveling outside Russian borders. Currently, some communications between Russian neighbors may involve, say, the intermediary of a server located in another country. The location of Internet infrastructure determines which government’s laws apply to it (a lesson LiveJournal users learned when political speech was banned on the platform in 2017 after the social network moved its servers to Russia).
But the more immediate goal of the Great Unplugging—a formal accounting of the ins and outs of Russia’s Internet infrastructure intricacies—isn’t all that different from similar projects undertaken in the United States, like the Department of Homeland Security’s Internet Atlas. The Atlas was an attempt to create a detailed map of all the fiberoptic cable and other connective infrastructure that allows the U.S.’s Internet to run, in order to anticipate and bolster the elements most vulnerable to attack. (One big takeaway from the project is that all of the U.S.’s Internet infrastructure is privately owned.)
According to Paul Barford, an Internet topology expert at the University of Wisconsin who worked on the Internet Atlas, Russia’s plan is almost certainly part of an attempt to defend itself against what he calls a “cyber cold war.” To build a cyber-wall at its border, Russia needs to fully understand how its local traffic works. And one way to get a handle on that, Russia believes, is to declare a moratorium on its Internet.
Russia’s Internet sovereignty bill was introduced shortly after the U.S. released its 2018 National Cyber Strategy, which focused on Russia as a cyber-combatant of the U.S., NPR reports. In part, Russia’s experiment “simply recognizes that state-sponsored malicious activity is a norm on the Internet,” Barford says, “But, in the worst case, it could be a move toward something more authoritarian, as we see with the Great Firewall in China, that limits the content that their citizens have access to.”
To Ben Peters, a media studies professor at the University of Tulsa and the author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, both possibilities, together, are likely. “Those two sides are of the same coin,” Peters says. “Every form of cyber warfare and its defense can also be turned against its people.”
As far as Barford is concerned, Russia’s goals of Internet isolation seem to be a turn against the Internet itself. “The Internet was not designed with an ‘off switch’ in mind,” he says. “Furthermore, the idea of country-level isolation is antithetical to the goals of the Internet such as I understand them.”
But Russia’s push toward Internet isolation highlights a broader truth about the Internet, or, rather, Internets: that there are, and always have been, many of them. The Web’s history is one of competing governments attempting to extend their ideology and interests through technology.
“The mistaken notion that the Internet is the one network of networks that will unite the world is the exception to the rule in the history of computer networks,” Peters says. “It is no surprise now that the Internet first became popular as the one network of networks for a globalized world economy in the 1990s, the only decade in recent history in which geopolitics also appeared monopolar. The simple fact is that networks have been operating independently of one another for decades.”
From the Internet’s beginnings in the mid-20th century, many countries scrambled to build their own visions of a preeminent national computer network. In the U.S., the Department of Defense’s ARPANET—initially designed to speed up the response to Cold War nuclear threats—prefigured today’s Internet. But Chile’s Project Cybersyn and the Soviet Union’s All-State Automated System envisioned a future of fully automated luxury communism, with central planning carried out by a nationalized web of computers instead of a bureaucratic human authority. (Respectively, a military coup and, of course, bureaucratic corruption eventually killed those two projects before they could achieve their aims.) Other attempts appeared in Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere.
Still, for the last few decades, the many global Internets have been dominated by policymakers on the East Coast of the U.S. and code-makers on the West Coast. Russia’s plan is a recognition of both the durability of nation states and the increasing multipolarity of geopolitics. In this context, the “politics of the soil of servers” will become increasingly relevant, Peters says. “It’s a reminder of something that’s been true for a long time but is often forgotten: Where you put the servers really matters.