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A Closer Look at Why Russia Wants an Independent Internet

Dave Burstein

Actually 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 and not under Western control. The battle over ICANN and domain names are 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 already discussed this as "splitting the Internet," with the 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 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."

Why the "splitting the Internet" mime 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 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.


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

The story began at,

I found more at,

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

By Dave Burstein, Editor, DSL Prime Dave Burstein has edited DSL Prime and written about broadband and Internet TV for a decade. Visit Page
Related topics: DNS, ICANN, Internet Governance

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Share your comments

largely agree Anthony Rutkowski  –  Dec 15, 2017 1:27 PM PST

The internet as a singularity has always been a myth.  There were many internets through the 1980s into the 1990s.  For some time, the concept of their integration was described as The Matrix - for which there was even a monthly newsletter.  With the help of $5 billion out of the U.S. public coffers plus the evangelism of the Clinton Administration, the DARPA Internet was foisted into the public infrastructure and subordinated the OSI internet which was more robust.  In the process, the myth of "The Internet" was born, even though many vast infrastructures like the global mobile network use their own internet implementations. 

Even Bob Kahn who had headed up the DARPA internet effort - realizing that many internets exist and will continue to expand - has spent the past two decades developing his Handle System to allow discovery and interoperability among them.  NFV-SDNs and 5G will result in vast proliferations of internets.

You accurately depict the ITU as the only intergovernmental forum that can play a global role in bringing about a measure of cooperation today.  It's survivability and resilience in the face of all the technical and political changes in the world over the past 167 years seems like ample proof.  Furthermore, it definitely beats bully bilateralism.  Unfortunately, it may also take some time for the IGF/ICANN types to move on.  It'll take another generation and the disappearance of the word "internet" into history.

Much ado about nothing / much DOA about something Joly MacFie  –  Dec 20, 2017 4:06 AM PST

Hi Dave,

I suggest a reading of Kieren McCarthy's piece in El Reg.

tl;dr This is essentially grandstanding by the BRICS, playing to their base - like the commenter above - who would love ITU control.

However, I was surprised to hear, just today at the IGF, Vint Cerf - in the pursuit of robust digital preservation - speak about the possible benefits of some DOA type schema over the ephemerality of DNS.

Here is the transcript:

Now's probably the right time for me to come in. I have to say, I'm wandering in the midst obviously of a lengthy discussion. And I can't stay very long because I have another commitment in a few minutes' time. Let me start out by reinforcing something that Andrew said, which is in the design of the Internet, our intent was there was freedom to invent identifiers that could be associated with IP addresses. And it didn't matter whether it was DNS or something else. Now, it happens that DNS was invented to do something better than the host.text file which became unwieldy both in terms of size and maintenance of Itzhak raes. So DNS has very valuable properties and has expanded over time. In some ways I think the DNS system has become overloaded with functionality that should cause us to think again about possible alternatives. It also has the property that at least the URLs that are derived from domain names are not permanent. They're not persistent. They have understandable features, for example, if you don't pay your rent, the domain name may go away. In which the thing it pointed to may also be inaccessible. Page not found being a common web- based error message. There's also a case that identifier systems in the Internet are already quite fragmented. We have private identifiers, hashtags, for example, or Facebook IDs and the like. And the fact that there is fragmentation isn't necessarily bad in and of itself. Andrew's point, I think, again, is worth consideration. So this existence of multiple ways of identifying things has already evolved. I will say that our inability to combine the various identifier systems into a more coherent hole is sort of sad from the purely technical point of view. But it may be inevitable from all the other forces that create that. I will say — and I spent an entire day with Joan Clemson and Patrick Feldstrom trying to sort through domain names and the awkward way in which we have tried to implementation using 2003 and subsequently 2008. I think our theories behind Unicode have proven not to be exactly valid. And so there's an issue there. How do we accommodate strings that are not in simple forms like ASCII. I don't think that we've done a very good job of that. And with the emergence of emojis and other things, I confess that it feels like the name space has become weirder than I ever anticipated that it would, if that's a technical term. I'm also very concerned about TLD squatting, to say people using what things look like comparable domains which are not, they're not part of the DNS. They get resolved in some alternative ways. And it causes problems if any of those TLDs actually become allocated in the domain name system. We have collisions. We already see this in .home.corp and .local, things like that. The monetization is very interesting. I had not anticipated any of this. The idea that a domain name is worthle manies of dollars did not occur to me or John Postel or anyone else in the early stages. We just gave them away. >> Had you kept them, you wouldn't be here. You'd be somewhere really warm. >> Yeah. It occurred to me that a/8 should have been allocated to me personally, and that would have been my retirement plan. But we didn't anticipate even IPV4 gray market. We thought, you know, 2 to the 32nd 4.2 determinations were more than there were people in the world at the time. It's got lots of space. There's also one other really awkward problem, and I think it was hinted at earlier, and it has to do with semantics. These strings that we use for identifiers have meaning in many cases. Although an identifier shouldn't necessarily be a word. In many cases it is, and that makes it easier to remember. The problem we have is that because there are semantics, people have reactions to the presence of some of these identifiers and their use. And from a purely technical point of view, it would be nice if the identifiers were just sort of plain numeric strings that nobody really cared about. However, nobody can remember them. And so we have this tension between something which is noncontroversial and something which is useful. And now how do we find a binding between those two? So let me finish given that I'm consuming a lot of your time here with an observation. I think that we surely should examine alternative identifiers systems. We can ask ourselves what properties would we like them to have both technically and perhaps from the — it's not just technical, but monetary. How do we maintain a system over long periods of time? If we want identifiers that last for a long time and can be resolved for a long period, I'm talking about hundreds of years, you have to have a business model that makes sense. So we should be asking ourselves not about the sole, single, new identifier system that we should adopt in the Internet space, but rather what properties do we want our identifier systems to have? And then how do we craft those systems to produce those properties? And so despite the fact that it's a little unsatisfying to have more than one kind of identifier space, we live in that world today. And I don't think we'll escape it. So why don't we design our way into it? I'll stop there.


a big picture view Anthony Rutkowski  –  Dec 20, 2017 7:06 AM PST

The basic problem here is that the term “internet” is an essentially meaningless abstraction used for marketing and political-economic purposes.  There are many datagram internets.  The one that occupies the I* groups and Washington political rhetoric is an instantiation that came to prominence beginning in the late 80s courtesy of the USG's pumping $5 billion into the platform and considerable promotional work by the Clinton Administration.  For many years, it was referred to as the “DARPA internet.” It remains largely a U.S. construct pursued for perceived global strategic purposes, and by companies marketing vague internet products and services.  Part of the strategy was to subordinate established, global multilateral mechanisms such as the ITU.  It has created a worldwide cybersecurity nightmare.

The success of the global public mobile infrastructure with its own internet, significantly eclipsed the DARPA datagram internet world.  The emergence now of NFV-SDNs allow any number of datagram internets to be instantiated and changed with any desired architecture using any desired protocols to reach any desired endpoints for any desired period of time.  The initial large-scale implementation is 5G, and it is the most massive collaborative global industry effort underway today.

A considerable array of identifier tagging and resolution services emerged beginning with seminal work at Xerox PARC and MITRE in the 1970s.  Most of them leveraged the hierarchical constructs devised at Bell Labs decades earlier for resolving telephony endpoints.  The DARPA DNS scheme’s success was a fluke because Bob Kahn funded gave a DARPA grant to some grad students at Berkeley who produced and gave away the resolver code named after them – BIND.  That also was marketed in the 1990s for both political purposes also by the Clinton Administration as well as revenue profitability with considerable SAIC resources.

Bob Kahn – who always thought ahead of the curve – to his credit developed his DOI intellectual property tagging identifiers and protocol that has had significant success.  He also sought with less success to enter the fray of meta-identifiers and resolvers, with his own platform affectionately known as the Handle System that comes complete with its own Geneva-based international organization, the DONA Foundation.  The Handle System meets a need, but to a significant degree, it competes with Google which has far greater success as a primary, user friendly resolver mechanism – at least in the West.  China entrepreneurs have similar platforms, and there is ample room for more.

Putin – who has long understood the reality of what exists - has plainly become tired of the games being played here and hoisted the U.S. on its own DARPA internet petard by using it as its own very effective attack mechanism over the past year.  With the emergence of NFV-SDN capabilities, whatever value proposition of the now antique DARPA internet implementations, including its DNS, largely disappear.  The only real question is whether the old I* groups and people who dwell in that world can adapt.  Vint is still trying to figure that out.  As to Washington…it is probably hopeless today as “American First” results in “America last.” It is the 1920s all over again.

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