Representative image. (iStock photo)

In the final weeks of the last year, there were reports that Russia successfully tested RuNet, its ‘domestic internet’ that would be cut off from the global internet. Specifics of the exercise are not known – whether, for example, it was really successful and what challenges it faced – but it made for an ominous end to a decade which has been marked by a growing disillusionment with the concept of the internet as a liberating force.

This was always on the cards when Russia and China started working together in the lead up to the former’s Yarovaya law, which imposed geographical restrictions on the transfer of Russian users’ data. In December 2019, Russia had also passed a law making it mandatory for devices sold in the country to be embedded with Russian apps from July 2020. While it does not specify which devices and apps are covered, critics of the law are concerned that its vague nature opens the door for it to be misused to force the installation of spyware.

Russia is not alone in this quest though, China is the pioneer and others like North Korea and Iran are along for the ride as well. After a week-long nationwide internet shutdown in response to protests and an exercise by government officials to collate critical ‘foreign’ websites sparking speculation about the creation of a ‘whitelist’ of allowed sites, Iran’s National Intranet Network (NIN) is once again in the spotlight. This was followed by a statement from President Rouhani that the network was being strengthened so that people will not need foreign networks to meet their needs. North Korea too has a tightly controlled domestic internet, Kwangmyong, whose content is largely controlled by the state.

China’s Great Firewall (GFW) has been around for over a decade and is not a unitary system as it is often made out to be. It uses a combination of manual and automated techniques to block global content but largely works on the principle of blacklisting unwanted websites/content. Many international websites do work but are extremely slow because of the scanning and filtering that inbound internet traffic to the country is put through. For a website to operate from inside Mainland China, a number of local permits are required depending on the industry. Much of the internet backbone is state-controlled. It has continued to tighten the noose through a combination of restrictive regulation and stricter interpretation of existing rules.

A highly-restrictive Cybersecurity law passed in 2015 called for mandatory source code disclosures. In 2016, it set out specifications for an Information Security Management System that aimed to automate the ability of provincial authorities to monitor/filter internet traffic. In 2017, it tweaked licensing rules to ensure that permits would only be issued to domains that are registered to a Mainland China-based company. The extent to which these rules are enforced may vary, but it leaves a ‘Sword of Damocles’ in the state’s toolkit that it can drop whenever it chooses to do so. By constantly increasing the costs of doing business for non-Chinese companies, it has achieved ‘chinternet’ without explicitly cutting the cord – yet.

Fears of a ‘splinternet’ along national boundaries or ‘balkanisation’ of the internet are not new. But the likelihood is now higher than ever before as governments try to take control over cyberspace after ceding space in its early years. Research by the Oxford Internet Institute and Freedom House have revealed the use of disinformation campaigns and the co-option of social media for manipulation and surveillance by various governments. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in support of a Russia-backed Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) has drawn criticism from others on the ground that it prioritises cyber sovereignty and domestic control of the internet over human rights. Countries that advocate a free-and-open internet are in a bind over whether to participate in the group or cede control in the global norm-setting process. Continued passage of regulation by various countries that have extraterritorial application will fragment the internet and strengthen the constituency favouring cyber sovereignty.

‘NayaBharatNet’ a possibility?

India has yet to articulate its position on some of the divisive issues concerning global norms in cyberspace, yet it has repeatedly stressed on the principle of cyber sovereignty positioning it alongside the Sino-Russian camp. While it seems to have softened its position on data localisation, for now, similar rhetoric about national sovereignty and security has been used by Russia and China in the past.

Authoritarianism by the Indian state is also surely on the rise – events that unfolded in 2019 provide ample empirical evidence for this. The fact that various police departments are proactively taking to social media channels to threaten/deter posts that run contrary to the state’s narrative and the frequent use of internet shutdowns show that the desire to control the internet is extremely strong. International criticism has repeatedly been portrayed as mischief by a ‘foreign hand’. The creation of a strictly regulated domestic digital echo chamber is not unimaginable in this context. In fact, it is a logical next step as the current tactics are bound to have diminishing returns over time.

Today, the economy (political or otherwise) for such a move does not exist. The IT Industry would obviously vigorously oppose it. And unlike China, the telecommunication backbone infrastructure is not state-owned, but the sector as a whole is probably the weakest it has ever been and tending towards a monopoly/duopoly. It also has a history of being regulated with a heavy hand.

Until now, India has followed a policy of denying cyber intrusions or claiming that no significant harm was done. However, in the aftermath of ‘undeniable’ real-world harm inflicted by a cyber attack, the overton window could move towards supporting such an initiative for national security and could very well be exploited. Some time in the not so distant future, we could all be communicating using Kimbho on NayaBharatNet.