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Putin tightens his grip on Russia's internet

Will political forces split the internet root?

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ICANN 2007 Los Angeles The Washington Post reported unwelcome news yesterday for our internet overlords - as internet penetration in Russia grows exponentially, the story claims, Vladimir Putin's allies are increasingly focused on strong-arming blogs and internet news sources in Russia to get their message across, efforts which may extend to the internet root itself.

While the broadcast and traditional print media succumbed to Kremlin pressure years ago, the internet has remained refreshingly free of Kremlin influence.

No longer. Internet usage has tripled in Russia in the last five years, and Putin supporters are looking to China as a model for controlling cyberspace and its incessant flow of uncensored information.

Flooding blogs with pro-Putin information and buying up media outlets are only the beginning: Russian officials have also been "investigating" the possibility of establishing a separate internet within Russia, one we can only assume would be more docile and responsive to the Kremlin's concerns.

ICANN shanghaied?

ICANN acknowledges that the Chinese have subtly molded the internet in their own way by appending the .cn to non-approved domains. Some have gone even farther, claiming that the delays imposed by the ever-hysterical intellectual property constituency over homographs in the Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) have already led to separate roots in China and Arabic-speaking countries - an allegation ICANN vehemently denies.

Even if ICANN is correct in claiming that the unified internet root - which is designed to ensure continuity across cyberspace - remains intact, the threat is real.

Putin announced in July plans to make Russia a global information technology powerhouse, and the Russian media quickly followed with allegations that the Kremlin had plans for a Kremlin-controlled network, separate from the ICANN-organized network that constitutes the current internet.

"To put it bluntly, we need to fight for the water mains. We need to fight for the central networks and for the audience segments that they reach." Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's chief political strategist remarked matter-of-factly.

He's not alone. Wolfgang Kleinwaechter, an adviser to the Internet Governance Forum - a group organized by the United Nations which has had its own issues with ICANN's control over the internet - claims that some Russian officials he has spoken to are considering a separate, Cyrillic-based Internet, and are taking a closer look at China's controversial attempts to control the internet.

Vint Cerf recently denied to El Reg that the root has been split, but even if that is the case - which, in light of the repressive politics in certain parts of the world, seems dubious - the political pressure on ICANN is certain to grow in the future. If so, ICANN looks to become more political than ever.®

Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office

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