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RU v. Net

As the saying goes, truth is the first casualty of war. In 2022, it’s also unfettered internet and technology access. In this article I argue that the Trust Zones framework helps contextualize technology sanctions in/from Russia and might forecast the future of the global digital stack.

First, recapping key events. While the exodus of tech and consumer brand companies was picking up steam in the days after the war started, Ukraine asked ICANN to remove Russian sites from the internet. That proposal didn’t go through but the Russian government itself announced that it will require all locally operating organisations to move to a .ru TLD by March 11th.

The country also blocked BBC, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter among others which led to a 2000% increase in VPN demand. Russia has been blocking websites since a few years – including Ukrainian news sites (Ukraine has done a similar thing in return). What’s new here; however, is the multiplicity of censorship techniques that are used to build “internet sovereignty”.

Although, the nuclear option equivalent of those – kill switch à la révolution Égyptienne – hasn’t been used yet, in 2019 Russia tested cutting itself off from the global internet by forming a giant intranet among its Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

In addition to the informational layer, the internet stack is also made up of key services. The withdrawal of some of these including Intel and NVIDIA (chips), AWS (data storage), Cogent (ISP), Visa/Mastercard (payments) from Russia might also result in short and long term disruption. So where do we go from here?

The thesis surrounding the possibility/inevitability/culpability of internet uncoupling is not new. Milton Mueller wrote about internet fragmentation and Laura DeNardis and Francesca Musiani about the role of organisation and infrastructure providers therein. Timothy Wu wrote one of the earlier articles unpacking what goes into China's, what by the end of the 90s was upcoming, content filtering and firewall system.

I believe; however, that the above might be the beginning of internet regionalisation and what MIT and University of California computer scientists call Trust Zones.

It works by essentially performing an identity check akin to bank style Know Your Customer (KYC) procedures on ISPs. This is different from balkanisation which is more deliberate disconnection of regions.

But why would this happen? In short, because there is a crisis of trust. Maybe the companies mentioned above and others that were not which export key technologies to Russia will revisit their policies, but the countries, the sanction and export screening laws of which these companies follow, might be slow in doing the same. When mixed with the development and testing of a secluded RUNet, this crisis becomes a two way standoff.

The key question here is how will this happen? In short, I don't know. While the Trust Zones authors explain technologically how it works, imagining the series of policy moves is more complicated.

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