Jul 06 2014
We knew it was coming; it was inevitable. The events put in motion last June played right into the hands of the people who wanted to cement their control, giving them every excuse to seize the power and claim they were doing it in defense of their people and their nation. Some might even say it was always destined to happen, it was just a matter of how soon and how completely. What am I talking about? The Balkanization of the Internet. It’s happening now and with Russia entering the competition to see who can control the largest chunk most completely, it’s only a matter of time before others follow the lead and make the same changes within their own country.
Let’s make no mistakes here, there have been countries and governments that have wanted to circumscribe their boundaries in the virtual domain and create an area where they control the content, they control what the people can and can’t see and they have the ability to see everything everyone is looking at as long as the Internet has been in existence. But prior to the last year, very few countries had either the political impulse or the technical means to filter what came into and out of their countries except China and a few countries in the Middle East. China had this power because they’d recognized early on the threat the Internet posed to them and the countries in the Middle East have comparatively limited Internet access to begin with, so filtering and controlling their access is a relatively easy exercise. In both cases though, the efforts have been coarse with plentiful ways to circumvent them, including the use of Tor. Though it now looks like Tor was itself has long been subverted by the US government to spy as well.
But then Edward Snowden came forth with a huge cache of documents from inside the NSA. And it turned out all the things that the US had long been shaking its finger at other governments about, things that the US considered to be immoral and foreign to individual freedoms, were the exact things that the NSA had been doing all along. Sure, it was only foreigners. Oh, and only ‘people of interest’. And people with connections to people of interest. Four or five degrees of connection that is. And foreign leaders. And … the list goes on. Basically, the logical justification was that anyone could be a terrorist, so rather than taking a chance that someone might slip through the cracks, everyone had become a suspect and their traffic on the Internet was to be collected, categorized and collated for future reference, just in case. Any illusion of moral superiority, or personal freedom from monitoring was blown to shreds. American politicians carefully constructed arguments to assume high ground and tell other countries what they should and should not do torn down and America suddenly became the bad guys of the Internet. Not that everyone who knew anything about the Internet hadn’t already suspected this had always been going on and the that the US is far from the only country performing this sort of monitoring of the world. Every government is monitoring their people to one degree or another, the USA and the NSA were simply the ones who got their hands caught in the cookie jar.
The cries to stop data from being sent to the USA have been rising and falling since June and Mr. Snowden’s revelations. At first they were strident, chaotic and impassioned. And unreasonable. But as time went by, people started giving it more thought and many realized that stopping data on the Internet from being exfiltrated to the USA in the Internet’s current form was near unto impossible. One of the most basic routing protocols of the Web make it nearly impossible to determine ahead of time where a packet is going to go to get to it’s destination; traffic sometimes circumnavigates the globe in order to get to a destination a couple hundred miles away. That didn’t stop Brazil from demanding that all traffic in their country stay on servers in their country, though they quickly realized that this was an impossible demand. Governments and corporations across the European Union have been searching for way to ensure that data in Europe stays in Europe, though the European Data Protective Directives have been hard pressed to keep up with the changing situation.
And now Russia has passed a law through both houses of their Parliament that would require companies serving traffic within Russia to stay in Russia and be logged for at least six months by September of 2016. They’re also putting pressure on Twitter and others to limit and block content concerning actions in the Ukraine, attempting to stop any voice of dissent from being heard inside Russia. For most companies doing business, this won’t be an easy law to comply with, either from a technical viewpoint or from an ethical one. The infrastructure needed to retain six months of data in country is no small endeavor; Yandex, a popular search engine in Russia says that it will take more than two years to build the data centers required to fulfill the mandates of the law. Then there’s the ethical part of the equation: who and how will these logs be accessed by the Russian government? Will a court order be necessary or will the FSB be able to simply knock at a company’s door and ask for everything. Given the cost of building an infrastructure within Russian borders (and the people to support it, an additional vulnerability) and the ethical questions of the law, how does this change the equation of doing business in Russia for companies on the Internet? Is it possible to still do business in Russia, is the business potential too great to pull out now or do companies serve their traffic from outside Russia and hope they don’t get blocked by the Great Firewall of Russia, which is the next obvious step in this evolution?
Where Brazil had to bow to the pressure of international politics and didn’t have the business potential to force Internet companies to allocate servers within it’s borders, Russia does. The ruling affluent population of Russia has money to burn; many of them make the US ’1%’ look poor. There are enough start ups and hungry corporations in Russia who are more than willing to take a chunk of what’s now being served by Twitter, Google, Facebook and all the other American mega-corporations of the Internet. And if international pressure concerning what’s happening in the Ukraine doesn’t even make Russia blink, there’s nothing that the international community can do about Internet Balkanization.
Once Russia has proven that the Balkanization of the Internet is a possibility and even a logical future for the Internet, it won’t take long for other countries to follow. Smaller countries will follow quickly, the EU will create laws requiring many of the same features that Russia’s laws do and eventually even the US will require companies within it’s borders to retain information, where they will have easy access it. The price to companies ‘in the Cloud’ will sky rocket as the Cloud itself has to be instantiated within individual regions and the economy of scale it currently enjoys is brought down by the required fracturing. And eventually much of the innovation and money created by the great social experiment of the Internet will grind to a halt as only the largest companies have the resources needed to be available on a global scale.