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To say that the internet has become the lifeline of the 21st century would be an understatement. From running industrial and government networks to enabling content consumption and remote education and work, the need for connectivity has become a determinant factor in the global digital economy.

Furthermore, the ubiquity of the internet has now managed to prominently enter into the scope of a country’s sovereignty. The exchange of internet traffic resulting in the generation of zettabytes of digital data via connected devices is being seen as the ‘new oil’ by data-hungry marketers. Hence, considering the adverse ramifications of a hyper-connected world, securing the internet from threats of data theft and privacy breach is becoming the primary focus of some nations. Some have already set the ball rolling to build an alternate internet exclusive to their country.

In recent news, Russia successfully detached from the global internet on a trial basis between June and July 2021, according to RBC daily, a business daily newspaper in Russia. The daily report was based on the document from the working group that is responsible for the country’s internet security.

The RBC also cited their sources in the working group confirming the success of the tests that involved Russia's major telecoms firms. The tests were performed to determine the ability of the 'Runet'  - the Russian-language community on the Internet and websites - to work in case of external distortions, blocks, and other threats as well as to assess the capability of physically disconnecting the Russian part of the internet. However, clarity on the length of the disconnection or any noticeable disruptions to internet traffic have not been established due to the general secrecy of the process.

According to the RBC report, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state communications regulator said the tests were aimed at improving the integrity, stability, and security of Russia's internet infrastructure. The new system once in operation will aim to protect Russia from incoming cyberattacks. Essentially, all ISPs in the region will re-route web traffic in Russia to exchange points controlled by Roskomnadzor. The system will use proxy servers to steer data packets of information away from the public DNS resolver by default, identify data location, and either let that information pass, redirect it, or block it completely.

Russia's Information Security Working Group that is responsible for the project has Natalya Kaspersky, the co-founder of Kaspersky Lab as one of its members. Kaspersky Lab has faced criticism abroad over charges that the Russian government used its products to spy on computers.

Fight over cyberspace

The tussle between the US and Russia over the supremacy of cyberspace has become well-publicized by now. In late 2019, Russia adopted the ‘sovereign internet’ law that seeks to protect the country from being cut off from foreign infrastructure in response to what Russia calls the "aggressive nature" of the United States' national cybersecurity strategy.

Under the Roskomnadzor’s radar US-based internet platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube are constantly monitored for posting of material deemed illegal by Russia. The state internet security agency has warned the platforms for punitive sanctions upon failing to abide by the country’s sovereign internet law.

Although not as stringently as China, over the recent years, Moscow has implemented stronger internet laws that require search engines to delete some search results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services, and platforms to store user data on servers in Russia.

Conversely, responding to recent massive ransomware attacks on thousands of American companies and individuals, US president Joe Biden stated on July 9 promising to “take any necessary action to defend its people and its critical infrastructure.” The US has pointed fingers at hackers based in Russia for most of the cyberattacks in their country.

The plan

Russia has spent about $300 million on its sovereign internet plan. In recent years, Russia has blocked access to certain services, be it VPNs or encrypted messaging apps; however, industry experts feel that it is unlikely that the Russian government can exercise on its citizens the level of control that China does with its web access mechanism-- the Great Firewall.

Experts argue that Russia would not be able to completely operate in a way like China does because Russia's internet was built to be open. On the contrary, China took over the control of web access just two years after the internet first entered the country in 1996 when all service providers were licensed by the government and all internet traffic was going through state-owned telecommunication companies. Despite the early start and heavy investment, China's internet cannot be deemed fully impenetrable.

The fallout

In a classic example of the ‘Splinternet’ – the fragmentation of the internet - the governments of China and Russia are essentially trying to develop secondary networks that run under the authority of the respective governments. However, from a business perspective, it may make things difficult because the services and communications required for a free-flowing trade environment may be hampered once detached from the global internet, thereby limiting international economic connectivity.

Conversely, for the sake of argument, one may cite the example of China’s economic success despite its aggressive web access policies, however, one should not forget China’s robust e-commerce and mobile app ecosystem that it had built over the years and continues to do so. As per GlobalData forecast, the e-commerce market in China will reach US$3 trillion in 2024 whereas in the case of Russia such an ecosystem is a far cry when compared to that of China.

One of the major benefits of the internet is its ability to transcend borders as a trade mechanism. Consider this. As of January 2021, there were 4.66 billion active internet users worldwide, which is 59.5% of the global population out of which 92.6% (4.32 billion) accessed the internet via mobile devices. Given the growing trend of online purchases and virtual meetings, if a country is serious about attracting foreign investments to improve their economy, they might want to keep the internet as open as possible.

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