What Russia’s Cyber Sovereignty Woes Tell Us About a Future “Splinternet” // October 13
by Elizabeth Kerley, Program Officer, International Forum for Democratic Studies
Since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been putting its longstanding aspirations for “cyber sovereignty” to the test. In keeping with its longstanding objectives of “technological independence and information control,” the Kremlin has promoted homegrown tech in the face of sanctions while also halting the flow of independent information. Meanwhile this April, 61 mostly democratic countries signed a declaration articulating a vision for an internet that is “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure.” What does this clash of visions portend for the digital domain?
In recent years, legal and technological innovations have eased the path for authoritarians seeking the benefits of connectivity without the risk of critical speech that might challenge their power. Moscow’s current efforts—particularly its use of newly installed deep packet inspection (DPI) tools for internet traffic filtering to block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—reflect these growing dangers. These trends have led some analysts to anticipate (or simply announce) the emergence of a “splinternet” fragmented along lines of state control. Yet as Jason Pielemeier of the Global Network Initiative and Chris Riley at the Annenberg Public Policy Center argue, there are still ways in which the open internet can make a positive difference for people living in closed and semi-closed societies. In addition to the practical difficulty of turning open networks into closed ones, transnational coalitions in support of digital rights can influence actors key to shaping the global balance: tech companies, democratic governments, and “swing states.”
First, achieving cyber sovereignty as envisioned by autocrats is less technologically simple than they might hope. The original model for this approach, China’s “networked authoritarianism,” relies on centralized network infrastructure as well as a flourishing domestic ecosystem of digital services. Regimes seeking to shift to this model “mid-game,” after years of following a different, more open pathway of digital development, have encountered challenges. Russia has struggled to promote RuTube as an alternative to Google’s popular video sharing platform, and sanctions have left Russian companies struggling to acquire chips and other key components. Meanwhile tools such as Tor continue to offer interested Russians an opportunity to circumvent information controls. In another illustration of the practical difficulties with cyber sovereignty, Cambodia postponed in February its establishment of a National Internet Gateway (which would route traffic through a government-managed portal), apparently due in part to technical obstacles.
Second, given the challenges of developing a purely homegrown digital ecosystem, most digital authoritarians rely on extorting the cooperation of Western tech companies to a much greater degree than the CCP has done. This reliance on foreign companies in democracies means that robust transnational support for human rights online can make a difference. If digital rights issues stay in the spotlight, private companies based in democracies may be less inclined than they have hitherto been to help resolve the “digital dictator’s dilemma.” Public scrutiny of instances like Finnish mobile maker Nokia’s technical support for Russian telecoms surveillance and Facebook’s complicity with government censorship demands in Vietnam could make other companies hesitate before complying with autocrats who hope to have their digital cake and repress it, too.
Finally, as Alex Engler notes, public commitments to norms like the Declaration for the Future of the Internet could help to “warn off wavering democracies from internet transgressions.” The ongoing scandals regarding use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware are only one of many examples showing why such norms are needed even in established democracies. But clear statements of principles may also influence the trajectory of “swing states” in global tech governance debates. From Brazil to India to Mauritius, struggling democracies are weighing new regulations related to content moderation, data protection, and internet traffic filtering that will shape the digital environment for critical speech. As autocrats seek to craft a brave new digital world in their image, robust transnational norms in favor of rights-respecting and accessible technological ecosystems remain key.