The Splinternet – what does it all mean?

With Russia taking steps to separate itself from the World Wide Web, we keep hearing and reading about the “Splinternet”. The potential online ring-fencing of population centers, thereby limiting their access to reliable content, will have consequences on not just their worldview but on geopolitics as a whole.

Jonathan Zurel, Global Communications Manager at Hola

Apr 05, 2022 · 5 min read

The term “splinternet” isn’t new. It first appeared in 2001, in a paper by Clyde Wayne Crews, a researcher at the Cato Institute. He framed the concept of a fragmented, separated, potentially disparate internet as a good thing (go figure). As with many things, its meaning evolved over the years (a refreshing Corona for anybody?) and the way it is viewed today, is a far cry from Mr Crews’ initial optimism.

Fast forward to 2022 and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. With Russia facing isolation from an array of major retail brands, streaming services, tech giants and more, they recently announced that they will have completed the test of separating themselves from the World Wide Web on 11 March 2022 (although they first announced a successful test way back in 2019). 

It could simply be blamed on spite, but it is more likely an attempt at controlling all possible narratives, to the government’s benefit.

In simple terms, they’ve done this to tighten their grip on the availability of information to Russian citizenry - meaning that access to reliable news, e-commerce or entertainment is massively impacted. Let’s be real here - weaponized information is, and always has been a powerful tool in warfare - there’s a reason why telecommunication infrastructure is often part of the first “military” targets in any campaign.

James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China, thinks the plug could be pulled on Russian participation in the internet as we know it, at any time: "Cutting off the internet, making sure Russians are only consuming the content that the Kremlin approves of, that kind of thing makes sense strategically, so you can see the path we're headed down," he told the BBC.

"I wouldn't be surprised if that came into force in the coming weeks or months."

So what does this Splinternet thing mean for the average citizen on the Russian or Ukrainian street? Their ability to access reliable news sources can be crucial - this access should not be compromised. If Telegram or WhatsApp is disabled, using the web version through an Access (or VPN) partner can make all the difference between total isolation, finding out whether your family is safe, or knowing that help is on the way. Until Russia has a viable alternative, deep hopelessness becomes a very real prospect indeed. 

At Hola, we take this type of situation seriously. Access to reliable content is core to what we do and indeed, to who we are. This is why we have always, and always will, provide a free service. How we do that is on one hand, we have our pro/premium product which requires payment. However, over and above this, while Hola gives you access to any site on the Internet, users contribute idle device resources to a vast pool of peers in exchange for a free, unrestricted browsing experience. We are truly a Community-powered access product. What does this mean? Our users help each other to make the web more open and accessible for all. If you’d like to dive deeper into how this works, click here.

According to Statista, VPN usage in Russia and Ukraine has seen a massive increase. Online searches have surged by 668% in Russia and 609% in Ukraine. This goes to show that the need for access to information has come into even sharper focus. 

Hola’s peer-network of users who help each other, in today’s geopolitical landscape, is more important than ever. The growing number of Hola users stands as a testament to the importance of receiving and indeed, giving access to those who need it most. We all have our part to play in bringing hope to those in need, breaking down barriers. We should not be raising a new Iron Curtain, or Iron Firewall, as the Splinternet risks doing.

Jonathan Zurel, Global Communications Manager at Hola

Apr 05, 2022 · 5 min read