Ukraine wants to separate Russia from the global Internet. Experts say it’s a risky idea

But now Ukraine is pressing for something more dramatic and ramifications.

On Monday, the Ukrainian government called for Russia to be cut off from the global Internet. It sent a letter to ICANN, the US-based international non-profit organization that oversees the global system of Internet domain names and IP addresses, with a petition.

“I am sending you this letter on behalf of the people of Ukraine, I ask you to address the urgent need to impose severe sanctions against the Russian Federation in the domain of DNS [Domain Name System] regulation, in response to its aggressive actions towards Ukraine and its citizens,” wrote Andrey Nabok, who represents Ukraine on the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee.

Internet governance experts say Ukraine’s demand, if implemented, would effectively disconnect Russia from the Internet, leaving Russian websites without a home. Email addresses will stop working and Internet users will not be able to log in. Russia will suddenly find itself on a digital island.

But these are the same Governance experts doubt Ukraine’s demand will eventually be met. For one thing, they say, it would set a dangerous precedent that could give authoritarian states license to make similar demands. On the other hand, it is not clear whether ICANN could make such a decision even if many wanted to. Besides, they added, isolating Russia from the rest of the digital world may give the Kremlin exactly what it wants: citizens unable to access outside information.

Governments like China have sought to isolate their people from the outside digital world. But Ukraine’s demand is unprecedented, according to Vint Cerf, widely considered one of the fathers of the internet.

“It’s the first time in my memory that a government has asked ICANN to interfere with the normal operation” of a domain name system of this size, Cerf told CNN Business.

“The Internet works largely because of the high levels of trust among many components of its ecosystem,” Cerf added. “Acting on this demand will have negative consequences in many dimensions.”

The message was first reported by Rolling Stone. ICANN spokeswoman Angelina Lopez confirmed to CNN that the letter had been received and that officials were reviewing it, but declined to comment.

How can it work

As part of his request, Nabok said the online Russian country code .RU and its Cyrillic equivalent should be abolished. In addition, Nabok said he was sending a separate request to the Regional Internet Registry in Europe and Central Asia, asking it to take back all the IP addresses it assigned to Russia.

Nabok argued that the measures would be another way for the world to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and that it would help Internet users access “authoritative information in areas of the alternate domain, which prevents advertising and disinformation.”

Internet governance experts say that while it is possible to imagine how Ukraine’s proposal would work, its implementation is another matter entirely. In theory, cutting .RU from the global Internet could be as simple as deleting a line of instructions from major “root” servers around the world that currently tells web browsers where to turn when they want to access a Russian website. Stoltz, senior attorney at the Digital Rights Group Electronic Frontier Foundation. It’s more complicated, Cerf said, since the files the servers rely on must still be blessed with ICANN’s cipher signature or else they won’t work. Cerf said that ICANN has procedures in place to protect against such “arbitrary changes,” “regardless of the number of requests made to do so.”

Restoring Russian IP addresses, meanwhile, would be tantamount to removing the screw that keeps the board hanging on the wall, Mallory Nodel, chief technology officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a US-based think tank, said. Just as the board will no longer have a place to live on the wall, Russian sites will also disappear from the Internet because they have no designated place to sit.

This also means that smartphones, computers and other connected devices in Russia will no longer be able to access the Internet more widely because they no longer allocate IP addresses that can identify those devices to a global network, Knudel said.

Russia will likely have enough of its own local copy of the Internet redundant so that Russian Internet users can communicate with each other for some time, but the experience will likely deteriorate severely unless Russia caches copies of the entire Internet for people to access, Knodel said. . Until then, the local Russian backup will not reflect future content that is constantly being added to the global Internet.

“In practical terms, it will end up affecting everyone in Russia who is connected to the Internet, and will not have a real impact on powerful systemic institutions like the military and government,” she said. “We know for sure that this would seriously disrupt people’s access to the Internet in Russia.”

An uphill battle for Ukraine, unintended risks for the Russians

For Ukraine, getting ICANN to comply with its request is both a political and a technical problem.

ICANN , which stands for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is one of the many global organizations that help direct and control the development of the Internet. It operates largely on the basis of consensus, and its members include not only governments but also civil society groups and technical experts.

For years, ICANN has carefully cultivated its role as a non-political administrator of the Internet’s functions. Because of its structure and decision-making process, there is no single actor in ICANN that can dictate outcomes. This setting reflects the highly complex ecosystem of companies and organizations that manage the technical infrastructure of the Internet.

Ukraine faces an uphill political battle over the number of groups it will need to persuade. Stoltz said there are about a dozen providers running so-called “root servers” that must be updated to flush Russia off the Internet, and a controversial plan like Ukraine’s would not lead to consensus among them at ICANN. Even if the ICANN representatives somehow decided to implement the Ukraine plan, it would only take one or two deviations and the whole plan would collapse.

Ukraine also faces technical conflict for some of the same reasons. The distributed nature of the Internet means that it must depend on everyone’s consent.

“On a technical level, there is no Internet hub,” Stoltz said. “There is no command center. There is no button you can press to do all this stuff.”

There is also the issue of international law, according to Rona Sandvik, a digital security researcher. “The United Nations had previously declared the Internet a human right, and said that separating people from the Internet is a violation of human rights and contrary to international law,” Sandvik said. chirp.

Even if Ukraine were to put everyone in the same position, Nodel said, it would still be a risky idea. She said the plan would break some of the “really important authentication and web security functions” that are currently being integrated into the Internet. This could be harmful to Russians who rely on these security features for their safety, especially defectors.

Nodel said Russia and China are also actively building their own, more manageable, domestic versions of the Internet. Pursuing Ukraine’s plan might give Russia what it wants: a more flexible online audience that cannot access foreign information.

“Russia has been trying for a long time to figure out how to break away from the greater Internet, and one of the main things standing in their way from doing that is the global domain name system,” Knodel said.