No, The BRICS+ Will Not Have A Separate Internet

January 8, 2024 Topic: Internet Freedom Region: Global Blog Brand: Techland Tags: BRICSInternet FreedomCloud ComputingRussiaChina

No, The BRICS+ Will Not Have A Separate Internet

The bigger problem is that authoritarian states, including current and prospective BRICS+ members, are sharing best practices to challenge Internet freedom.

 

BRICS+ leaders met in St. Petersburg in November 2023 as part of the Fifth International Municipal Forum amid the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. The organization, which has invited Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Argentina, and the United Arab Emirates to join in 2024, has taken pains to project the image of a coherent international organization.

Russian politicians capitalized on the meeting to challenge perceived Western digital hegemony. Dmitry Gusev, a Russian Duma member in charge of digital affairs, announced a request had been sent to Russia’s Digital Development Ministry to work on creating “a single inclusive BRICS+ cyberspace,” with a unified technical system. This BRICS+ internet would be separate from the Western-dominated current system and in line with the “traditional values” and national laws, but no specific details were included. BRICS+ itself is a nebulous enough entity that the most significant challenge would be getting the constituent members to agree to such a proposal, to say nothing of the technical hurdles.

 

The proposal is part of a broader effort to challenge American financial and technological hegemony, and it echoes proposals made earlier this year by Russian politicians to create a common BRICS+ currency and shift away from the dollar as a global reserve currency. But, just as these currency proposals face massive and potentially insurmountable challenges, so do proposals to build a separate internet.

RUNET

Russian efforts have hitherto focused on moving more internet infrastructure in-country and increasing internet censorship. These policies have had mixed success but point to the potential future of the Internet in an era of great power conflict.

Proposals for a separate “BRICSNET” are not new: Russia proposed creating a separate internet for what was then called the “BRICS” in 2017 when the Kremlin’s National Security Council began exploring the idea of creating a sovereign internet system. Implementation focuses on creating an alternative network of domestic DNS servers, which could function if Russia is cut off from the global Internet. DNS functions as the Internet’s phonebook, resolving the domain names that users enter into their browsers with the IP addresses that host the domains. The thirteen authorities for the DNS root server networks, which operate as the highest tier in the DNS system, were assigned to organizations that functioned as early internet exchange points in the United States, the UK, Sweden, and Japan.

Russia has stepped up testing of its internet system since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. It is difficult to ascertain how successful these tests have been, as the testing has also led to the cutoff of government services. Tests in early July 2023 led to reports of massive interruption in online services for Russia’s state-owned railway system and their Agricultural Authority, despite claims by authorities that the tests were successful.

The organization that controls the DNS system is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit corporation headquartered in Los Angeles. The problem with breaking away from ICANN and creating a separate BRICSNET is that many developing countries are increasing partnerships with the system. Over the past two decades, the organization has opened offices and engagement centers in Istanbul, Brussels, Singapore, and Montevideo. As a result, the developing world continues to integrate its DNS infrastructure with ICANN, which announced that Kenya would be the location for Africa’s first root server cluster in December 2022. The further digitalization of economies in the global south will make them more dependent on ICANN DNS infrastructure, not less.

BGP Barriers

If DNS is the Internet’s phone book, then Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) is its global trade route system. Attempting to create a national DNS system is a challenge, but for a genuinely separate internet system, BRICS+ would likely need to create alternative protocols for data transmission.

BGP functions as the highway of the Internet, and data streams flow according to various transmission protocols for data to move most efficiently. Flows must occur between different Tier One Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for the system to function. Creating a “separate internet” would involve not only creating root DNS servers but also a system for ISPs and separate routing protocols located at the border of national internet infrastructures so as not to be reliant on the current system.

The competition for constructing undersea cable networks that facilitate global internet traffic is a natural arena for great power competition, but one where the prize is access to markets as internet demand grows in the developing world and access to some of the data flowing for intelligence purposes. China is increasingly aggressive about expanding its market share in internet infrastructure, but these cables do not constitute a separate global internet.

Another complication for a BRICSNET is that search engines, cloud technology, Internet of Things (IoT), and other emerging technologies that are upending traditional network technology are still concentrated in the United States. Cloud infrastructure, in particular, is U.S.-dominated, with China’s Alibaba and Tencent Cloud only controlling 6 percent of the global market, less than a fifth of the share of Amazon Web Services.

The War on Internet Freedom

More worrying are the moves by authoritarian states, including current and prospective BRICS+ members, to share best practices to challenge Internet freedom. While China had the foresight to create the Great Firewall as the Internet was being introduced in the 1990s and early 2000s and the creation of “chokepoints” was possible for traffic flowing into the country, retroactive creation of such a leviathan of censorship is practically impossible. Iran has also managed to establish chokepoints, which enabled internet shutdowns in 2022 amid the backdrop of anti-government unrest. The unregulated, ad-hoc expansion of the Internet throughout much of the developing world would make retroactively creating such chokepoints extremely difficult, however.

Russia has attempted to make up for previously lax internet policies by blocking various Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) since the Kremlin began its sovereign internet initiative. Still, international VPN providers have refused to comply. The only country with more VPN downloads in 2022 than Russia was India, highlighting that citizens in developed countries are not the only ones concerned about shielding their browsing from internet censors.

The policies have devolved into a wack-a-mole since the invasion of Ukraine, where VPNs are blocked, and users seek new ways of bypassing the censorship. Independent analysis published in November 2023 by digital rights groups has found that nine of sixteen popular services have been blocked in Russia to varying degrees. Still, VPN services continue to introduce new technologies to subvert bans. Russian lawmakers recently indicated that they plan to attempt to ban VPN services that are refusing to comply with blacklists from being displayed in search results.

Russia’s efforts to create its own home-grown domestic network of certificate-issuing authorities for TLS, the key infrastructure that secures HTTP traffic for the World Wide Web, have been partially successful. Russian citizens are increasingly forced to download government-issued TLS certificates created by a firm that works closely with the FSB to perform basic internet functions. Russia’s largest bank estimated that 25-30 percent of domestic devices had downloaded the certificates as of June 2023. 

These restrictions continue to spread globally: Belarus’s authorities attempted a mass shutdown of internet service during violent protests against fraudulent Presidential election results in 2020 and was partly successful. China’s Great Firewall continues to roll out new technologies to detect and block encryption, and authorities in Russia have stated that they are developing machine learning systems for the same end. 

The Internet is an American Citizen

Boastful proclamations aside, building an entirely separate internet would be a task for a super-civilization. Just as much of the rest of the world remains dependent on the U.S. defense of global trade routes, global internet systems also continue to rely on American technology and expertise. Proposals for a separate BRICS+ internet have thus far gone nowhere for a reason: they are nigh impossible from a technical and organizational standpoint.

Despite a contested cyberspace, global internet traffic is growing by 27 percent per year, with more people reliant on the worldwide network than ever before. The Internet remains humanity’s most significant engineering project, providing ever-more stunning innovations in trade, communication, and debate. Fevered great power dreams of dividing the Internet do not accord with reality. Nonetheless, the desire to replicate “best practices” among authoritarian states to clamp down on internet access and civilian encryption are developments that should be taken seriously by all who care about a free and open internet.

Luke Rodeheffer is the founder and CEO of Alpha Centauri, a cyber security and due diligence firm.

Image: Shutterstock.com.