In just a few decades, the Internet has expanded to connect most of the globe, broadening access to information and services for about 55% of the world. Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea, though.
Motivated by the desire to control information and increase national security, some countries have constructed national intranets: walled garden networks usually maintained by the government as a local substitute for the global Internet.
North Korea is the most famous example of this, with the intranet being the only form of Internet allowed in the country, but other countries, particularly Iran and Cuba, have rolled out related programs, and Russia is now preparing to briefly disconnect from the global Internet to test its own system. Right now a “splinternet” of walled-off national intranets seems unlikely, but, as these countries show, it’s not an unimaginable prospect.
North Korea: Kwangmyong
North Korea is one of the most closed-off countries in the world, and its Internet is no exception. Their “Kwangmyong” (광명) intranet is the only access most North Koreans have to anything resembling the Internet, and it is heavily controlled by the government. Its information and communication services are centrally administrated and monitored, and no sites or content can be put up except through government channels.
Even if citizens could use it freely, their KDE Linux-based Red Star operating system is also configured to keep tabs on their activity. That’s if they have a computer or mobile device, of course, which the vast majority of North Korean citizens do not.
This is pretty much the most restrictive existing vision of a national intranet: it’s almost completely airgapped from the global Internet and is so micromanaged that rules even exist for the HTML code used on sites. The font size for leaders’ names (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il Kim Jong-Un), for example, has to be 20% bigger than the surrounding text. This level of control is pretty much only possible because absolutely nothing else is allowed. It turns out the only way to make your national intranet or OS the dominant one is to ban all the alternatives completely.
Iran: National Information Network (Halal Internet)
Unlike North Korea, Iran allows its citizens access to the worldwide Internet, albeit a heavily filtered version blocking many sites and keywords. It’s also been building out its own network, though, known officially as the “National Information Network” and unofficially as “the Halal Internet.” It hosts Iranian websites and services and is administered by the government, which requires all users to sign up so they can be identified. With this system in place, Iran can throttle or completely sever its connections to the outside Internet while still keeping all domestic sites and services available at full speed.
The system went live in 2017 and has been growing since then, largely pushed through by political interests in controlling access to information and content, as well as creating an Internet in line with Islamic ideals. Access to the intranet and the substitute services is both cheaper and faster than regular Internet access, though this has been improving.
You can access the Internet from Cuba with relatively few restrictions (though it will be slow), but you can also access Cuba’s national intranet, which contains Cuban versions of Wikipedia, e-mail, educational materials, maps, search engines, and more. There are even some apps being launched on RedCubana, and since it’s faster (no international connection required) and cheaper (by design), it may result in increased growth for domestic Cuban software, much as China’s Great Firewall promoted Chinese apps and services as substitutes for the international versions.
Cuba’s Internet infrastructure is still fairly underdeveloped, though, and getting online, whether to the global Internet or RedCubana, generally requires visiting a public location where Internet is available. They may be getting new undersea cables, though, and mobile Internet access is increasing, so it seems likely that, as long as no constraints are put in place, their intranet will likely decline in popularity as access to international services becomes easier.
Russia’s intranet is still a work in progress, though it has been gathering government support and already has a lot of the infrastructure in place. It is aimed at building networks that will keep all domestic traffic inside the country, only allowing international traffic through certain exchange points where it can be monitored and filtered. This means that Russia would still have a functioning domestic Internet, even if it was cut off from the rest of the world – something it plans to test on April 1, 2019. It’s unlikely to sever ties completely, but its intranet will provide new means of monitoring Russian users.
China: The Golden Shield/Great Firewall
While it’s not technically a national intranet in the same tradition as North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Russia, China’s widespread blocking and regulation of Internet traffic has effectively created a separate area of the Internet. Unlike the above instances, it doesn’t run on a separate system, but it has created a large domestic network of apps and services. They do not apparently plan to close themselves off entirely from the rest of the world but are rather proponents of “cyber-sovereignty,” or the idea that governments should be able to regulate Internet activity occurring in their state.
While not technically an intranet, their model is quite restrictive and fills many of the same roles that national intranets do while also providing (and promoting) a model for other countries that want to restrict Internet access.
Are national intranets going to become more common?
Russia’s migration towards a walled garden Internet system and China’s success with the development of a thriving domestic Internet industry makes the idea of a splinternet a little more plausible. Michael Grothaus, for example, argues that a “cyber 9-11” in the U.S,, probably some sort of massively-destructive infrastructure hack, would certainly lead to more stringent cyber-defense mechanisms – a national intranet possibly among them. It’s highly unlikely that the world will move towards a North Korean-style system since that would basically cripple international commerce and communications, but regulated international traffic gateways and restrictions on online information and trade flows certainly don’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.