Internet Governance
ICANN rejects Ukraine’s request to block Russian Internet domains

photo

FILE- In this Wednesday June 13, 2012, file photo, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, President and Chief Executive Rod Beckstrom, speaks on expanding the number of domain name suffixes during a press conference in London. Hundreds of Internet address suffixes to rival “.com” should be available for people and businesses...

© picture alliance / AP Photo | Tim Hales

Requests to shut down the internet or individual platforms regularly sound tempting. However, just as regularly, they must be urgently curbed. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has made the right move by rejecting the wish to exclude Russia from the Internet. Internet governance must be of greater interest to liberal democracies in the future.

Russia must be excluded from the Internet, so that propaganda and disinformation from Russia can be stopped. This demand was raised by the minister of digital transformation and deputy prime minister in Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It is a demand that at first glance seems logical and comprehensible. After all, the Kremlin uses the Internet to launch cyberattacks and to disseminate his propaganda. These specific measures of the Russian government have not only been known since the brutal attack on Ukraine. The influences have only become more apparent since February 24th. Nonetheless, at second glance, it would be wrong to comply with the Ukrainian minister’s request. Göran Marby, the President of ICANN, has turned down the request from Ukraine out of understandable reasons.

Marby pointed out ICANN’s neutrality in a written reply and at the same time assured that both he and ICANN stand on the side of the Ukrainians. It sounds cynical to defend neutrality in a brutal war of aggression. Nonetheless, if you take a closer look, ICANN’s decision is not neutral in terms of egalitarian attitude. In fact, it applies its neutrality to advocating an open and free internet. Only such an approach can be the basis for an Internet that can respect and guarantee democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. If ICANN had not acted neutrally, they would have fueled the attempts of authoritarian regimes – above all China and Russia – to further promote and legitimize their own monitored “Internets”. This must not happen. Rather, liberal democracies must keep a closer eye on the geopolitical power struggle in the digital realm. They eventually have to commit themselves much more actively to the freedom of the Internet.

ICANN, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, assigns –as its name already states – names and numbers. That is, it deals with the domain name system (DNS) and IP addresses. The DNS is basically the phone book of the Internet and allows people to easily memorize only www.freiheit.org. The DNS breaks down the IP addresses, the “telephone number”, that lie behind, and directs the users to the chosen website. ICANN is also responsible for assigning top-level domains, which means the allocation of country codes such as .de or .fr, as well as the issuance of generic endings like .com, .org or .gov.

ICANN itself is an independent non-governmental organization based in the US, and not the “world government” of the Internet. It is neither legitimately nor technically capable of simply shutting down the Internet. This is the result of the decentralized structure of the Internet in technical aspects, but also of the decentralized allocation of responsibilities and authorities. Therefore, separate organizations in individual countries – DENIC in Germany – assign the domains of each country code according to the respective laws of the country. So little say can ICANN have in determining who uses a .de domain is the same with those who use the Russian ones – .ru and .su. ICANN solely makes sure that an authorized organization, such as DENIC, in a country organizes and executes the domains. This is about the decentralization of power, so that ICANN does not serve as a possible “world government” of the Internet.

Of course, the description of ICANN’s duties and how the Internet works has been shortened and simplified here. However, it should suffice to better understand and contextualize the reply from ICANN’s President. Deprivation of the .ru and .su codes would only result in the websites under the codes no longer being accessible without further ado. However, all websites – including the ones with Russian-language content – that are registered behind a generic code such as .com or .org would still be accessible. It is also common for German organizations to (additionally) use such top-level domains. Disinformation and propaganda from Russia or Russian-language disinformation would thereby not cease. Rather, it would lead to the situation where people are cut off from information of any kind even earlier.

In the letter, ICANN’s President Marby concluded by stating that ICANN does not monitor any access to the Internet, nor do they control any content. Hence, the Ukrainian minister’s wish that in this way users would find trustworthy information on websites of other top-level domains, that is, only international domains, cannot be fulfilled because it is based on false assumptions.

Unfortunately, it also reveals what an enduring catastrophic effect the implementation of the completely understandable wish from Ukraine would have: ICANN must remain neutral, so that Russian Internet users can obtain reliable information. ICANN’s President Marby states rightly that any other actions would result in the loss of trust in the multi-stakeholder model, and thus the measures required for the maintenance of the global Internet would no longer have support. What’s more dramatic is that implementation of the Ukrainian minister Fedorov’s demand would even play into the hands of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and confirm his warnings that the West wants to ban Russia from the Internet.

We have to look back a few years for this: this created threat that the West would want to cut Russia off the Internet is already several years old. It was the foundation for Putin’s plans, which is to build his own Russian Internet – commonly called RuNet. Under the pretext of protecting oneself from Western cyberattacks, the Kremlin established an immense surveillance infrastructure within the Russian territory. Human rights experts and network activists warned vociferously about these plans well before 2019.

There was no such threat – and certainly no request to exclude Russia or any other nation from the Internet (especially since it would not be possible given the decentralized structure of the Internet). Putin uses this as an excuse to justify that from now on all data traffic must be directed through cross points in Russia. Only this approach makes it possible to filter and monitor data traffic. China sets an example with its “Great Firewall” – which is yet so far much more successful in screening and thus filtering and monitoring the data traffic of its citizens.

The lawful requirement that corporate groups have to save all Russian citizens’ data also pertain to the control of Russian people. Corporations like Microsoft, to which the business network platform LinkedIn belongs, were opposed to this requirement, which is why LinkedIn has been unavailable in Russia for years now. Other large social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should also have followed the requirement, but did not do so. They received administrative penalty, but the accesses have not yet been blocked due to this law. The access to Twitter is currently restricted, so it takes a long time to load the website. Meanwhile, Facebook and Instagram are blocked.

In retrospect, it must be noted that the Kremlin’s measures for its own Russian Internet and the involved surveillance measures should have been of more interest and concern to the world community. The long-standing and implemented measures and their present-day effects indicate especially two things that the liberal democracies – above all Germany and the European Union – must now take much more seriously:

● Measures of Internet censorship and surveillance must be consistently addressed and outlawed. They, as well as Internet blocking, must be much more strongly addressed in international relations. Germany and the European Union must be a good role model. Hence, suggestions such as blockade of messenger service Telegram and any legally mandated filters must be rejected.

● Germany and the European Union must be devoted to strengthening the multi-stakeholder approach of the Internet governance, meaning to promote the Internet Governance Forums of the UN, as well as the extension of its mandate, which will expire in 2025. The current German government has specified in its coalition agreement that it wants to advocate for an open, global Internet and strengthen the global civil society, which works to promote digital civil rights. It should speedily go about these proposals, in particular under current occasions.

The Internet Governance leads a niche existence that it absolutely has to get out of. The networked society and the information era are in urgent need of this. Precisely because human rights, such as the right to freedom of information, can be secured. We can see from the current situation how desperately necessary this is. Therefore, ICANN did not act indifferently with its commitment to neutrality, but rather demonstrated its commitment to fundamental principles that are the basis of a free and open Internet. Such an Internet alone is capable of safeguarding democracy and human rights, and above all the right to freedom of information.

If the Internet is splintered, its basic ideals – freedom of information – will be buried. The control of the Internet would lead to the opposite: information sovereignty and thus censorship. Separation and Control over the Internet or even only individual sectors, as the Kremlin is pursuing even more strongly and China already has, in order to achieve this information sovereignty, will result in the fact that universal values are no longer the basis of the Internet and thus the foundation of information transport and evaluation, but instead national, particular interests. As we can see currently and in many other examples, these do not necessarily align with human rights and the rule of law.