In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, ending 30 years of war across Europe and bringing about the sovereignty of states. The rights of states to control and defend their own territory became the core foundation of our global political order, and it has remained unchallenged since.
In 2010, a delegation of countries – including Syria and Russia – came to an obscure agency of the United Nations with a strange request: to inscribe those same sovereign borders onto the digital world. “They wanted to allow countries to assign internet addresses on a country by country basis, the way country codes were originally assigned for phone numbers,” says Hascall Sharp, an independent internet policy consultant who at the time was director of technology policy at technology giant Cisco.
After a year of negotiating, the request came to nothing: creating such boundaries would have allowed nations to exert tight controls over their own citizens, contravening the open spirit of the internet as a borderless space free from the dictates of any individual government.
Nearly a decade on, that borderless spirit seems like a quaint memory. The nations who left the UN empty-handed had not been disabused of the notion that you could put a wall around your corner of cyberspace. They’ve simply spent the past decade pursuing better ways to make it happen.
Indeed, Russia is already exploring a novel approach to creating a digital border wall, and last month it passed two bills that mandate technological and legal steps to isolate the Russian internet. It is one of a growing number of countries that has had enough of the Western-built, Western-controlled internet backbone. And while Russia’s efforts are hardly the first attempt to secure exactly what information can and can’t enter a country, its approach is a fundamental departure from past efforts.
“This is different,” says Robert Morgus, a senior cybersecurity analyst at the New America Foundation. “Russia’s ambitions are to go further than anyone with the possible exceptions of North Korea and Iran in fracturing the global internet.”