New proposal on Russia cyber sanctions

Thursday’s proposal — in an open letter signed by politicians, internet activists, network experts, security researchers and others — opposes separating all Russian websites as dangerously broad and likely to hamper the ability of ordinary Russians to surf the Internet. The signatories are particularly concerned about depriving Russians of news and information at a time when President Vladimir Putin’s government has almost completely shut down the country’s free press.

“Our main concern is not to use the Internet as a weapon against the civilian population,” Bill Woodcock, CEO of Packet Clearing House and organizer of the open letter said Thursday.

The letter proposes technical approaches to isolate some Russian websites from easy online access while not affecting the websites of most companies and routine government services, such as schools and hospitals.

A promising idea, the letter says, is to create a list of sites that major Internet networks can choose to avoid, insofar as they actually refuse to connect to sites known to deliver malware or spam. But as a first step, the signatories proposed the creation of a new voluntary committee that will meet soon to look into the question of possible sanctions against Russian websites and how to implement them.

The letter outlines the group’s opposition to a request from Ukrainian officials last month asking ICANN, the California-based nonprofit group that oversees the implementation of Internet addresses, to suspend use of Russian state domains, which include “.ru” and two others.

The signatories to Thursday’s letter described the move – which was rejected by ICANN last week – as “disproportionate and inappropriate” because of its impact on Russian civilians seeking to use the Internet for routine purposes.

“The sanctions must be focused and precise,” the letter said. They should reduce the chances of unintended consequences or collateral damage. Disproportionate or broad penalties may fundamentally alienate the population.”

But the letter says, “Military agencies, propaganda and their information infrastructure are potential targets for sanctions.”

Already, Russian propaganda sources like RT have been banned in some parts of the world.

Efforts to disconnect Russia from the internet have raised concerns among digital rights activists who have called for protection of Russians’ ability to operate online at a time when their reliable independent sources of information are rapidly dwindling.

Even the targeted approach has left some Internet rights activists worried.

“The creation of a global blocklist will inflame the fears of those who already question the world of Internet governance,” said Peter Misk, general counsel for the digital rights group Access Now. “Its legitimacy will be called into question from the outset, and only a robust, inclusive and open process for proposing, vetting, appealing and implementing such a list can hope to meet human rights standards.” Such a process, he said, would take “years of input into design and testing”. “I have serious doubts that such a blacklist will meet the established and strict test of interference with freedom of expression in the short term.”

Thursday’s proposal envisages what he calls a “multi-stakeholder mechanism” for assessing whether and how sanctions will be implemented. This mechanism will generate a list of IP addresses and web ranges to be connected and update it using the Border Gateway Protocol, which networks use to route traffic through the Internet’s many nodes. Individual networks can then choose to deny access to a list of targeted IP addresses and web domains. The multi-stakeholder approach has been popular in the world of Internet governance, especially in the decades since the US government withdrew from oversight of the network it first incubated in the Pentagon program in the 1960s.