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How To Kill The Internet: An Annotated Guide

How To Kill The Internet: An Annotated Guide

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to kill the internet. Well, sort of. Russia is taking steps that would enable the government to unplug the country from the world wide web and fall back on its own, internal Russian network. A Russian agency plans to perform tests on a prototype of the "RosNet" (our coinage) soon.

That would be a boon to Vladimir Putin's ongoing bid to tighten control over the online realm, an obsession rooted in the anti-Putin protests of 2011-2012, and the Snowden revelations about massive US online snooping in 2013. The system is meant to be a temporary emergency measure, according to the Russian press – in case of hostile cyberattacks, or serious internal protests.


But Russia's president has a problem: ordinary Russians are accustomed to relatively unfettered access to the global internet. If Putin really pulled the plug during a bout of unrest, or if he tried to clamp down too hard on the global internet in other ways, he could face a popular backlash.

But Russia's experimentation here got us thinking: what are governments' different strategies for controlling cyberspace? Some do it for national security reasons, others are responding to consumer concerns about privacy. In all cases, what governments can and can't do is a product of the prevailing political, technological, and economic forces in their countries.

Here are a few basic approaches we've noticed:

Build your own: That's China's approach. Around 800 million people in the country surf the web, buy stuff and find love over a sanitized version of the internet that's been engineered to block or stamp out information that could threaten political stability or the legitimacy of the Communist Party. That seems to suit China's millions of internet users just fine. It easier to tolerate being disconnected from the global internet when you've already got domestic internet services and apps that are easily as innovative, and in some cases even more influential, than foreign ones. But that's a model that other governments – even technologically sophisticated ones like Russia's – will struggle to replicate.

Cut it off, and damn the consequences: Governments that lack the resources and knowhow to develop sophisticated censorship systems like China's or a backup domestic internet like the one Russia hopes to build still have options for controlling cyberspace. When governments in Cameroon or regional states in India were worried about protests or other social unrest spreading via social media, they just cut the internet off. There are two big problems with this approach: one, it's expensive – and will only grow more so as a bigger chunk of the global economy relies on online connectivity. Two, it's potentially politically explosive: when Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak cut off the internet to try to stamp out protests that were being organized on social media during the Arab Spring, it only solidified popular opposition to his regime.

Tighten up the rules, but don't close the road: No country has benefited more from the global internet than the United States, and you won't see the US talking about cutting off US citizens anytime soon. Still, Washington is increasingly concerned about cybersecurity threats and the national security implications of foreign (read: Chinese) equipment suppliers. The Trump administration is more aggressively confronting foreign hackers and trying to push China's huge tech companies out of next-generation 5G networks around the world. The EU for its part, is also trying to assert more government control over the internet, by tightly regulating hate speech and setting stricter rules to protect users' personal data.

Which of these strategies do you think is most likely to succeed in the long run?

Pop quiz: what percentage of plastic currently gets recycled worldwide? Watch this video in Eni's Energy Shot series to find out and learn what needs to be done to prevent plastic from ending up in our oceans. Plastic is a precious resource that should be valued, not wasted.

This Monday, March 8, is International Women's Day, a holiday with roots in a protest led by the Russian feminist Alexandra Kollontai that helped topple the Tsar of Russia in 1917. More than a hundred years later, amid a global pandemic that has affected women with particular fury, there are dozens of women-led protests and social movements reshaping politics around the globe. Here we take a look at a few key ones to watch this year.

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shocked the world last year when he recovered from an attempted assassination plot by poisoning — an attempt that bore all the fingerprints of Russian government. Then he shocked the world again by returning to Russia and timing that return with the release of an hours-long documentary that catalogued the Putin regime's extensive history of corruption. Virtually no one, therefore, was shocked when he was immediately sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and expert on authoritarian regimes, believes there was a method to Navalny's madness. "His decision of '….I'm going to do something that harms me personally, but is going to be a lesson for Russians. I'm going teach a generation of Russians how to be brave.' I mean, not very many people would have the guts to do that."

Applebaum's conversation with Ian Bremmer is part of the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television stations nationwide starting Friday, March 5. Check local listings.

It's not like things are going well in Mexico.

COVID has killed more people there than in any country except the United States and Brazil. Just 2 percent of Mexicans have gotten a first vaccine jab, compared with nearly 24 in the US. The Biden administration made clear this week that it won't send vaccines to its southern neighbor until many more Americans have been vaccinated. Mexico's government has cut deals for doses from China, Russia, and India.

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A body blow for Pakistan's Prime Minister: Imran Khan suffered an embarrassing defeat this week when members of the National Assembly, the country's lower house, voted to give the opposition bloc a majority in the Senate. (In Pakistan, lower house legislators and provincial assemblies elect senators in a secret ballot.) The big drama of it all is that Khan's own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party holds a lower house majority, which means that lawmakers supposedly loyal to his party voted in secret for opposition candidates. Khan's allies claim that PTI members were bribed to support the opposition, and the prime minister says he will ask for a lower house vote of confidence in his leadership. That vote will not be secret, but even if he survives, the political damage is done. Without a Senate majority, he has no chance of passing key reform plans, including constitutional amendments meant to centralize financial and administrative control in the federal government. Khan has, however, refused to resign.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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