Fragmented Internet: National Interest or Human Rights Violation?

Fedor Smirnov, a participant in the 2015 Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute and ICT practitioner in Russia, discusses internet fragmentation and privacy in Russia with key insights from AnOx speakers.


Fragmentation of the internet, triggered by Snowden’s revelations, is a key issue for internet governance researchers and practitioners alike. As Professor Milton L. Mueller argued during the 2015 Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute, there are two types of fragmentation: unintentional technical incompatibility and intentional limitations of access, latter of which raises concerns in both academic and civil societies. Today’s internet is generally open, interoperable and unified, but governments across the world strive towards greater control of the net. Some threats to internet freedom are of technical nature (threats to Domain Name System, DNS), others political (internet censorship and blocking), and others still economic (breakdown peering and transit agreement) and legal (local privacy regimes). Over the past few years, Russia has taken many steps towards more fragmented internet access, particularly by introducing blacklists, requiring bloggers registration, and holding discussions about a “disconnected Runet’  (a scenario when .RU top level domain may be separated from the global DNS).

Russia is not the first country to implement data localization requirements. Along with countries like Vietnam, Brazil and India, Western democracies such as Germany, France, and Canada are heading towards a fragmented internet as well.[1] Russia’s tendency towards fragmentation resulted in the Russian Data Localization Law (242-FZ) that took effect September 1, 2015. The law, which pushes Russia further down a data localization trajectory, stipulates that digitalized personal data of Russian citizens  should be recorded, systematized, and stored using databases located within national territory. Websites that break the law will be added to a special register, which will enable Russian government-controlled communication regulator Roskomnadzor to block those who are non-compliant.

While the government claims the Russian Data Localization Law will guard Russian internet users’ privacy, the law does not necessarily guarantee better protection of personal data as it facilitates government access to sensitive information. New legislation would make operational activity of foreign companies in Russia more complicated, generating additional costs and adding new barriers for global players that want to enter the Russian market. While some consequences of this law are not clear, data localization goes against underlying principles of internet openness and negatively affects the internet’s resilience and stability in Russia.

At the Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute, Professor Monroe Price, Director of the Center for Global Communications Studies (CGCS), raised a crucial point during a discussion on fragmentation when he posed the global unfragmented internet as a human rights issue.

In his analysis of internet regulation processes in Russia, Dr. Gregory Asmolov, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, considers the core struggle for researchers and practitioners in the internet governance field to be “around the construction of the internet’s role in the everyday life of its users.”[2] There is a need in Russia to oppose the state-sponsored framing of the internet and expand internet imaginaries beyond security threats and leisure. Global organizations focusing on internet development (e.g. Internet Society) may need to put forth stronger efforts in the promotion of core values of an unfragmented, interoperable internet in Russia. Such initiatives will never be effective without bottom-up campaigns including e-participation, citizen activism, and social entrepreneurship that benefit from the global nature of the internet.

Fragmentation of the internet is supported by state actors in many countries and requires permanent monitoring and more attention from media and internet policy researchers. Data localization proposals, introduced with good intentions to protect citizens’ personal data from external threats, may instead just create fragmented, disconnected networks or “national segments” of the internet. This kind of fragmentation will devalue core principles of the internet and transform it from an open communication platform into over-regulated media space used for national interests, including propaganda and the violation of human rights.


[1] Anupam Chander, Uyen P. Le (2014) Breaking the Web: Data Localization vs. Global Internet. California International Law Center. Retrieved from

[2]   Asmolov, G. (2015) Welcoming the Dragon., The Role of Public Opinion in Russian Internet 
Regulation. Center for Global Communications Studies. Retrieved from in-russian-internet-regulation/


About the Author

Fedor Smirnov is an ICT practitioner from Russia, working in the field of Internet infrastructure. In 2012 he joined as the Chief Marketing Officer and continued his professional development on the Russian domain names & hosting market. Currently Fedor Smirnov is a Board Member and Secretary of the ISOC Russia Chapter – an NGO that plays an active role in media policy (primarily, Internet policy) in Russia. Fedor’s areas of interest are ICT & Internet policy, cybersecurity, Internet and Human Rights, and the Information Society. 


Further References:

Alves Jr., S. (2014). The internet balkanization discourse backfires. Retrieved from

Internet Society. (2015, April 6). Internet Society and the Russian Association for Electronic 
Communications to Host Roundtable on Internet Data Localization. Retrieved from

N.A. (2015, May 20). Russian Watchdog Warns Facebook, Twitter, Google of ‘sanctions’. TASS Russian News Agency. Retrieved from

Sonne P. and Razumovskaya, O. (2014, September 24). Russia Steps Up New Law to Control 
Foreign Internet Companies. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

The Moscow Times. ( 2015, June 16). Data Law Will Cost Russia $6 Billion. The Moscow Times. Retrieved from–report/523801.html


Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Stephen Melkisethian

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