Russia has seemingly created its own limited version of the Internet, in an attempt to ensure that its citizens don’t gain access to information that is inconvenient to the Kremlin.
This blocking off of large portions of the Internet is the latest attempt of the Russian authorities to create an internal cyberspace, separate from that of the worldwide web. In November, the government also introduced a ‘sovereign Internet’ law, which enables the authorities to block content when an “emergency situation” occurs.
According to the Russian Ministry of Communications, Russian Internet users experienced no issues with the ‘new’ Internet during its initial phase of testing.
While there could be legitimate reasons for such technology to be implemented, particularly in an era of cyber warfare, many international observers view the decision as a clear attempt to censor the Internet, and stymy criticism of the Russian government.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also recently signed a law which ensures that devices cannot be sold in the country without pre-installed Russian apps. Report from Russia indicate that authorities in the country are now working on producing so-called Russian alternatives to major Internet sites such as Facebook and Google.
The efforts of Russia can be seen as a wider trend of some of the more authoritarian countries in the world shutting off the free speech that the Internet affords. China, Iran and Saudi Arabia have already made efforts to restrict web content, while also placing limits on the way that citizens can communicate over the web.
China has been particularly restrictive with its Great Firewall of China technology, and has recently gone to great lengths to dampen down criticism of its treatment of Uighur Muslims. In particular, China responded to comments online by the Arsenal soccer player Mesut Özil by firstly removing an Arsenal game from Chinese TV, and then taking the likeness of Özil out of the recently released Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 video game.
Such responses to what most Westerners would view as the enshrined right of free speech may seems surreal and even chilling, but there is an increasing demarcation between the Internet in most of the world, and a handful of nations that are seemingly not committed to freedom of speech as a concept.
Some Internet experts have dubbed this split in the ethos associated with the worldwide web as a ‘splinternet’. While it is certainly far too early to suggest that the worldwide web will eventually splinter into a multitude of nation-based and focused manifestations, it is certainly possible that the future direction of the web could be very different from the democratised and free platform envisaged by Internet idealists.
“Sadly, the Russian direction of travel is just another step in the increasing breaking-up of the internet,” Professor Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at the University of Surrey, told the BBC. “Increasingly, authoritarian countries which want to control what citizens see are looking at what Iran and China have already done,” Woodward continued.
What this suggests is that this latest move by Russia is just the beginning of a wider trend, which will impact citizens in many countries.