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Russia threatens to build a separate Internet

DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images

In the latest issue of FP, I wrote (subscription required) about the efforts of ICANN, the group that gives out Internet domain names, to "internationalize" the Web. Starting this year, ICANN will allow users to use non-Roman characters in top level domain names. For example, Arabic-speaking users will no longer have to end Web addresses in ".com"—they can register the last part of their Web address in their own native language.

Tina Dam, the executive director at ICANN who is in charge of the change, said that part of the reason for the switch was fears that China could "split the root," or create a second Internet that only recognizes Chinese characters. This would allow the Chinese government to control what people see. If, for instance, a Chinese user tried to access an FP article on censorship in China, the government could direct them to a completely different site.

Dam said she was confident the change would appease the Chinese. But ICANN now has a problem with Russia. Despite ICANN's efforts to incorporate Russian alphabet characters into Web addresses (it is one of 11 sets of characters the group is incorporating), Moscow is pushing for the creation of an Internet that recognizes only Cyrillic characters. Expert warnings echo those voiced about a Chinese Internet: increased international isolation and more government censorship of the Web. Given the wide control the Kremlin already has over media in Russia and its unwillingness to play nice with pretty much anyone these days, a separate Russian Internet might be just as dangerous a prospect as a separate Chinese one.

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