Can Russia be excluded from the Internet?

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the main organization that deals with the activities necessary for the functioning of the Internet, has rejected the request of the Ukrainian government to almost completely exclude Russia from the Internet, as an additional sanction for the invasion military of Ukraine. The proposal was presented earlier this week by the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, arousing great perplexity among experts and ICANN members themselves, who finally defined the request as impractical and risky.

The letter
On Monday, February 28, Fedorov had sent a letter to ICANN accusing Russia of having committed “heinous crimes, largely made possible by the Russian propaganda that uses the Web to spread disinformation, hate messages, promote violence and hide the truth about the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian technological infrastructure has suffered numerous attacks from the Russian side, preventing citizens and the government from communicating “.

For these reasons, Fedorov had requested that the national top-level domain “.ru”, its Cyrillic equivalent “.рф” and other domains used to access Russian sites and online services be permanently or temporarily revoked. The letter also contained a request to revoke SSL certificates – which allow you to create secure connections between sites and computers that connect to their content – and to disable the DNS system for Russian sites, which is in charge of routing traffic.

Telephone Directory
Put simply, DNS works a bit like old telephone directories. In the early days of the Internet, computer scientists needed a system for exchanging data online that did not require remembering the Internet Protocol (IP), a numeric address assigned to each device connected to the network, every time in order to recognize it. Initially they were satisfied with a list compiled by a single person, who had adopted a system comparable to that of telephone directories: on the one hand he noted the name of each device on the network and on the other its corresponding IP.

As the internet got bigger and bigger, it became apparent that a faster and more efficient system was needed. Thus was born the DNS (Domain Name System), which over time would have organized and grouped the names in a hierarchical way in different domains (such as .it and .com), maintaining the information necessary to trace the names to the numerical IP addresses , employing a certain number of computers (servers) dedicated to this purpose and scattered around the world.

The system would have become more and more complex, but it still maintains that principle of operation today. In his letter, Fedorov asked to at least exclude the servers that manage DNS in Russia, so as to make it much more difficult to connect to Russian sites and other online services.

ICANN, the recipient of the Ukrainian request, has existed since 1998, when the United States government believed that the time had come to better formalize the entire Internet management system. A non-profit organization was established whose main task was to “regulate the name and address system” of the network. An important part of the DNS-related activities was placed under the responsibility of ICANN, which was to become the reference point for the rules on names, numbers and protocols that make the Internet work.

Throughout its existence, ICANN has always maintained good levels of autonomy, but until the fall of 2016 it was still under supervision by the US Department of Commerce. After lengthy discussions, in 2014 the United States recognized that it no longer made sense that there was just one government overseeing a system that is accessed by billions of people around the world.

The answer
A few days after Fedorov's request, ICANN replied with its own letter declaring inadmissible the request to exclude Russia from the rest of the Internet. The organization said it could not do it for technical reasons and did not want to do it for reasons related to its functions and the need to remain neutral.

“As you know, the Internet is a decentralized system. No subject has the ability to control or close it “reads the reply letter. While acknowledging the violence and the gravity of the situation in Ukraine caused by the Russian military invasion, ICANN recalled that its “mission does not go so far as to take punitive actions, issue sanctions or limit access to certain parts of the Internet,” regardless of the provocations “. The organization believes it was created to “make sure the Internet works, not to play a role in coordinating actions that prevent it from working”.

Blocking the Internet
Before ICANN's response, numerous computer scientists and experts had reported that it was practically impossible to isolate an entire country from the Internet, especially with actions carried out by external and that do not directly concern the service providers to connect to the network or to manage online content.

The suspension of top-level domains, such as “.ru”, the removal of systems to accept SSL certificates and DNS would probably have rendered the Internet unusable for many individual citizens, but would have had no particular consequences for the government and the military of the Russia, who can rely on more sophisticated solutions to continue using the Internet and to spread their propaganda. The blockades would consequently only harm the population, making it even more difficult for the inhabitants of Russia to search for independent information, compared to the extremely biased information disseminated by the Russian government-controlled media.

The limitations would also have had difficult-to-predict consequences on the security of the connections themselves, exposing correspondence and data exchange between private individuals to greater scrutiny by the authorities. There would probably have been an increase in cyber attacks, even to the detriment of private citizens.

ICANN maintains a purely technical role, oversees the management of the infrastructure that makes the Internet work and has always kept away from purely political issues and international relations. In the internal discussion before the response was sent to the Ukrainian government, some ICANN members had however signaled that neutrality at any cost does not make one truly neutral, especially if a reaction is required to a violation of international norms and rights. human beings, with the military invasion of a democratic and independent state.

In addition to this type of discussion, the assessments of the technical feasibility of the proposals presented by Ukraine prevailed over the ICANN decision. The blockade would have been partial and probably ineffective, and would have set a dangerous precedent.

In the last week, however, numerous Internet companies have decided to reduce, suspend or completely cancel their activities in Russia. Some foreign service providers to keep the sites online have announced to their customers the discontinuation of services, as well as large platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google have applied filters to block access to propaganda sites and profiles, including services information funded directly by the Russian government. The limitations were decided above all following the adoption of heavy economic sanctions by the European Union and the United States, which provide for the interruption of some commercial relations with companies and individuals in Russia.