Russia Orders Alternate Root Internet System

ICANN 320Actually practical and not necessarily a problem.The Security Council of the Russian Federation, headed by Vladimir Putin, has ordered the “government to develop an independent internet infrastructure for BRICS nations, which would continue to work in the event of global internet malfunctions.” (RT, the Russian government-funded news service.) RT believes “This system would be used by countries of the BRICS bloc – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.” 

Expect dramatic claims about Russia’s plan for an alternate root for the BRICs not under Western control. Actually, the battle over ICANN and domain names is essentially symbolic. Managing the DNS is a relatively insignificant task, more clerical than governing. ICANN Chair Steve Crocker pointed out they had very little to do with policy.

Columbia University Professor Eli Noam and then ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé have both said such a system is perfectly practical as long as there is robust interconnection.

Noam has pointed out that “multiple Internets” might actually be a good thing. Fadi agreed that this could work but worried about who would protect that “robust interconnection.”

Some are already discussed this as “splitting the Internet,” with the (probably mistaken) implication that would destroy the net and be a major human rights issue. The U.S. walked out of the ITU, the U.N. organization for the Internet, over issues like this. (I’ve asked some of the likely people for comments and will pass them on verbatim.) 

Some will claim this is about blocking free speech but that’s rhetoric. Russia doesn’t need to fiddle with the DNS for censorship, as the Chinese have demonstrated.

The biggest obstacle to the Russian proposal is that China may not be interested. After the WCIT, they realized that ICANN and the DNS are side issues not worth bothering about. They de-emphasized the ITU because the Americans made it obvious they would block anything they didn’t like. Instead, they have been building alternate institutions including the World Internet Summit in Wuzhan and the BRICs conferences.  Tim Cook of Apple and Sundar Pichai of Google paid homage to the Chinese in Wuzhan. 

The Chinese have put their main work where decisions that matter are made. Wireless standards are set by 3GPP, where nothing can be approved without China’s consent. In 5G, “The Chinese hold more than 30 key positions in standards organizations, with 23% of the voting power, 30% of the manuscripts, and 40% of the lead projects.” They are leaders at IEEE, where Wi-Fi standards are set. Anywhere the future is being designed, I see many Chinese, from SDN to Autonomous cars.

The American battle at ITU is proving to be a historic mistake. Making a few compromises at ITU would have kept the institution central. The U.S. and allies would continue in a strong role even if they shared some power with others. The result: new centers of focus where the U.S. government has very little impact. 

Why does Russia want an independent Internet?

Russia’s communications minister, Nikolay Nikiforov, worries about, “a scenario where our esteemed partners would suddenly decide to disconnect us from the internet.” I think that’s highly unlikely but Nikiforov points out, “Recently, Russia is being addressed in a language of unilateral sanctions: first, our credit cards are being cut off; then the European Parliament says that they’ll disconnect us from SWIFT.”

U.S. Senators have called for much stronger sanctions. U.S. FCC Commissioner Mike O’Reilly suggested defunding the ITU unless the U.S. gets more power. (He doesn’t realize the U.S. already has an effective veto over any ITU action, but that’s another story.)

It makes sense for the Russians to be prepared for such a contingency as the Cold War has been warming up on both sides. “Britain’s top military chief Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach just made headlines warning Russian subs “could CRIPPLE Britain by cutting undefended undersea internet cables.” See https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/5142433/russia-cripple-the-uk-internet-cables-sea-bed/ . “National Security Plan Hints at Return to Cold War Footing,” the NY Times headlines. 

Why the “splitting the Internet meme was invented

ICANN’s American contract became a symbol of the “control of the Internet.” Actually, ICANN has less real power than France Telecom/Orange, Google, Alibaba, or Facebook. But as the center of the Internet moved South, those countries believed they should have a share of control. The Americans and friends resisted change, although the most important opposition was the U.S. security organizations. 

Many folks in good faith saw this as a conflict over freedom of speech, including Vint Cerf and Kathy Brown of ISOC. They were the public face of the dispute, but the real power came from the U.S. government. The main battle was at the ITU WCIT in Dubai, which I attended. So did 14 representatives of U.S. three letter agencies. (NSA, CIA, HSA, DOD.) They weren’t there to protect freedom of speech; their mission was to protect the ability of the NSA to do what the NSA does so well. 

U.S. delegation lead at WCIT Larry Strickling explained to me the battle was necessary “unless you want Russia or China to take over the Internet.” (Anyone objective would realize Larry, generally a good guy, was offbase. They would have been happy with minor concessions but we gave them nothing.)

A multi-million dollar campaign resembled U.S. political campaigns. It found emotional issues that would win them support and hammered them home worldwide. Political pros led by U.S. State totally dominated the media. The folks at the ITU tried to answer back with facts but were totally out-classed as campaigners.

One theory they invented and propagated was that collecting any taxes from companies like Google would result in them boycotting Africa, which would cripple education. Google was not going to abandon a billion potential viewers because of modest taxation. 

They also circulated everywhere a picture of Secretary-General Tourè shaking hands with the President of one of his largest members and spread the rumor he was a Russian stooge. While Hamadoun did his graduate work in Russia, he was an ardent capitalist. He saw Russia during the era of stagnation and was not impressed. In fact, he wanted to do his Ph.D. in Canada but couldn’t get a scholarship. Russia was the only country that offered a scholarship. He said the polite things diplomats say about a powerful country, but in private was very clear.

There are hundreds of “Internet governance” professionals concentrating on ICANN and things like IGF. Some are well paid; most are of good faith. Many are more interested in access and getting everyone connected and don’t realize they should be working elsewhere.

The picture is the ICANN board in 2016. The Internet doesn’t look like this anymore. 

Sources: I went to google.ru, searched Internet, and found this story. Few have picked it up in English except the Russian RT service.

https://www.rt.com/politics/411156-russia-to-launch-independent-internet/ 

https://www.rt.com/news/188960-internet-blackout-russia-counter/

The story  began at https://www.rbc.ru/technology_and_media/28/11/2017/5a1c1db99a794783ba546aca

I found more at https://daily.afisha.ru/technology/7543-alternativnyy-internet-iz-rossii-chto-eto-takoe-i-chem-on-nam-grozit/

The ITU, ICANN, and WCIT reporting are mine or from the organization’s websites.

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