Last November, news emerged that Russian president Vladimir Putin had approved a plan to create an independent Internet by 1 August 2018, first reported by the Russian news agency, RT. The alternate Internet would be used by BRICS nations—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—and shield them from “possible external influence,” the Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told RT.
“We all know who the chief administrator of the global Internet is,” Peskov said. “And due to its volatility, we have to think about how to ensure our national security.”
Putting aside for the moment Peskov’s insinuation that the chief administrator of the Internet, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers(ICANN), which abides by California’s state laws, would mess around with Russia’s access to the network, the question remains: Could Russia create its own alternate Internet?
“The answer to your question is yes,” says David Conrad, chief technology officer for ICANN. The Internet’s protocols are openly available, and because it’s a network of interconnected networks, it’s entirely possible to re-create a different network of interconnected networks, he says.
Hypothetically, if Russia wanted to do that, it would need to duplicate the hardware and software that currently manages Internet traffic. That would likely involve setting up computer servers, copying existing databases, updating security features, and reconfiguring some existing technology—in essence, they’d need their own Domain Name System (DNS), the essential technology that underlies the existing Internet and, among other things, translates domain names (such as <http://for.example.com>) into the computer-readable numbers that make up a domain’s Internet Protocol (IP) address.
For an independent Internet, Russia would have to establish three main components. They’d need a name space, which is a structure that organizes the Internet traffic—the inquiries and responses for IP addresses—according to a hierarchical scheme that resembles a tree. They’d need a root server (and a root zone database), a network of computers that would be the first to respond to Internet queries and point them to name servers further down in the hierarchy. And they’d need to reconfigure their existing resolvers, the computers typically managed by Internet Service Providers and which are designed to initiate the queries that lead to the final result. Resolvers also keep the responses in memory for faster access next time.
Building out the technical assets to manage an alternate DNS is not a hard problem, says Internet Hall of Fame inductee and Farsight Security CEO Paul Vixie. “You could build that out of a shopping bag of Raspberry Pis that cost $49 each,” he said, referring to the inexpensive, single-board, general-purpose computers.
The difficult part is getting users to buy in. Even if Russia could persuade its own country to use their alt-Internet, getting others to do so would take some convincing. Anyone who wanted to access the Internet–any person, business, or government agency–from outside of Russia would have to reconfigure their phones, laptops, computers, or other devices, not to mention their routers and the DNS resolvers, to understand the new network, says Conrad.
Devices would not be able to simultaneously use Russia’s Internet and also the one managed by ICANN, says Vixie, or toggle back and forth between them. There’s no software written that has the capability to see the website http://for.example.com from the ICANN-run Internet and also see http://for.example.com from the Russian-based Internet.
Once on Russia’s Internet, users would have access to only those websites the alternative network recognized, says Vixie. The Internet could certainly allow users to see all of the websites that ICANN does. But let’s say Russia didn’t want its users reading Ukrainian websites. It could eliminate the country code top-level domain (TLD) .ua from its root server and essentially disappear Ukraine.
But is this also the kind of act Russia fears could happen to .ru? Back in 2014, according to RT, the Russian Communications Ministry conducted a simulation event to see if a backup Internet could support Web operations should access to the global Internet become switched off. It's possible they were worried that ICANN might attempt to remove .ru from the Internet.
Vixie thinks the stakes are too high for that to ever happen. “That would be the biggest shockwave in the history of the Internet,” he says. “It would cause not just Russia but other countries to say, ‘We can’t trust ICANN.’ ”
And when it comes to the Internet, trust is critical. Every network operator and every Internet device developer trusts that when a phone, laptop, or computer queries a DNS server, it will get a reliable and accurate response. If it doesn’t, the Internet doesn’t work.
To reinforce the trust and strengthen cooperation between nations, ICANN was rechartered in October 2016 as an independent, nongovernmental organization. Stewardship shifted from the United States to a volunteer-based, multistakeholder group governed under bylaws that keep its board of directors accountable to the Internet community at large.
Nations have representation on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which provides advice to ICANN’s board of directors. The board can decide to take that advice or not. Importantly, no one country can exert influence over ICANN to force it to perform fiendish acts.
“The idea that ICANN would remove a top-level domain without permission of the TLD’s manager is simply implausible,” says Conrad. A violation of that trust would result in an administrative restructuring that would exclude those who violated the trust, he says. Russia should have no cause for concern.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Hacked World Order, says Russia’s announcement appears to be a political statement.
For years, Russia, China, and other nations have complained about how the Internet is governed. As members of the GAC, they have a vote on proposals. But they can’t veto decisions made by the Internet Engineering Task Force, an independent international group of network designers, operators, and researchers that oversee the Internet architecture and its operation.
There is also the issue of Russia’s and China’s influence over developing nations. As they come online, these nations will need to decide whether they’ll model their Internet after the American and European systems, which value a bottom-up, free information model, or whether they’ll duplicate China’s and Russia’s systems, which have a more restrictive, top-down approach, says Segal. “There is an argument about the free flow of information globally,” he says.
In the meantime, Russia is strong-arming the Internet in other ways. It’s moving forward with a plan that forces foreign companies, such as LinkedIn, to store data about its citizens on Russian servers. How that will ripple through U.S. companies remains to be seen.
Tracy Staedter is a science writer, editor, writing coach, and consultant. Over the 20-plus years of her career, she has covered a range of science and technology stories from astrophysics to zero waste. She worked on staff for such publications as Astronomy, Scientific American Explorations, MIT Technology Review, DNews, and Seeker. She also wrote the illustrated book, Rocks and Minerals (part of the Reader’s Digest Pathfinders series) and founded the Fresh Pond Writers workshop for fiction and creative nonfiction writers. In addition to contributing to IEEE Spectrum, she writes for Discover, Smithsonian Air & Space, Mercury Magazine, Inside Science, and more.