Explained: Why the Russia-Ukraine war threatens to splinter the internet

In 2001, when the internet was staring at a slew of regulations from across the globe, Clyde Wayne Crews, a researcher at libertarian think-tank Cato Institute, proposed the idea of ‘splinternet’ — an internet splintered into disparate realms controlled by different dispensations or powers.

The fundamental proposal was to have more internets instead of having more regulations.

Over the past two decades, a splintering of internet has occurred in some limited ways. China’s ‘Great Firewall’ keeps American tech giants out while pushing online services developed indigenously. Russia, in 2019, passed the sovereign internet law — or the online Iron Curtain — that enabled the country to disconnect its internet from rest of the world.

The splintering

Crews may have been ahead of his time in propounding a splinternet. But the events of the past four weeks pose the first serious challenge to the way the internet has evolved into a global system of interconnected computer networks, that use the Internet Protocol suite (TCP/IP) to communicate between networks and devices.

However dystopian the idea may have seemed over these years, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does seem as a potential trigger for a splintered internet. France’s digital affairs envoy Henri Verdier, in an interview to Bloomberg News, recently stated that the combination of Moscow’s increasing online censorship attempts, combined with Ukraine’s repeated calls for Russia to be taken offline, could potentially offer the trigger for the eventual “fragmentation of the internet.”

“Will the unique, neutral, multi-stakeholder, free internet survive this crisis?” Verdier asked. “I’m not sure.”

The internet is essentially a global network of physical cables, which can include copper telephone wires, TV cables, and fiber optic cables, alongside wireless connections such as Wi-Fi and 3G/4G, that leverage the physical cables to hook users and devices on to the internet. Countries hook on to global web services via undersea cables or nodes that are connection points through which data is transmitted to and from other countries’ communication networks. The concept of the splinternet envisages blocks or…