Many of the world’s most popular platforms and services have sought to stymie Russia’s information operations and propaganda amid its illegal invasion of Ukraine. Meta, Google, Twitter, TikTok, and others have de-platformed, de-monetized, and de-amplified Russian state media and official channels, making them official participants in the information war that they largely refused to wade into in the months and years leading up to the war on Ukraine.
Apple joined in by removing RT and Sputnik from its App Store outside of Russia and went a step further and stopped all product sales and Apple Pay services in the country, a move that will undoubtedly affect ordinary Russians far more than the ruling class. Netflix has refused to carry Russian channels, and Warner Bros. and Disney have nixed upcoming movie releases in the country. Ukraine has encouraged this and recently asked Xbox and Sony to block Russian and Belarusian accounts and prevent gamers and teams from participating in or hosting esports events.
But Ukraine wants to go even further by kicking Russia off the internet.
On Monday, Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation sent a letter to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the body that oversees the domain system that forms the backbone of the open web. The letter asks ICANN to shut down Russian-administered domain names (think .RU, .SU, and .рф) and root servers in the country; to revoke Russia’s control of its top-level domain name system root servers; and to revoke the digital signatures that authenticate domain names. This is all a bit technical, but it basically means that the part of the internet run by Russia would not work. Most Russians won’t be able to access their email or apps, search the web, or access local websites because they resolve using the country-level domain. It would also create substantial security risks for anyone trying to navigate to one of those sites.
The domain name system, or DNS, is like the internet’s phone book, allowing anyone to type in a web address and get to the right place without having to figure out the corresponding string of numbers. The ability to authenticate a site is a crucial part of combating disinformation by preventing tampering and impersonation—which means that if you tried to get to novayagazeta.ru (the website of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor Dmitry Muratov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021), you either would be stuck or could be directed to a spoofed site. The letter claims that “these measures will help users seek for reliable information in alternative domain zones, preventing propaganda and disinformation.”
But it would do the opposite, shutting down some 5 million domains—including those belonging to local news outlets, nongovernmental organizations, and civic groups—and potentially kicking much of the country offline. While it wouldn’t be a full-scale internet shutdown, “this is basically like kicking Russia off the internet,” according to Ephraim Kenyanito, a senior program officer at Article 19 whose work focuses on DNS and censorship. (Disclosure: I’m the U.S. adviser for Article 19.) Local businesses, news outlets, and civil society would have to scramble to find new hosting services, which could be difficult given the increasing pressure to deny services to Russians. “Government ministries of health would be taken offline, including information on COVID. Basically it would prevent Russians from accessing information, and it would do disproportionate harm,” says Kenyanito.
Shutting down .RU could mean silencing Novaya Gazeta and scores of other independent publications. This would further worsen access to reliable news in the country, given that Russia’s media regulator blocked access to the websites of independent broadcasters Echo of Moscow and Dozhd TV and forced them off air on Monday.
Disconnecting the Russian internet would make it more difficult for people in the country, some of whom vocally and at great risk oppose the war, to express themselves and provide an alternative narrative to Putin’s propaganda machine.
Moscow has industrialized the art of propaganda, disinformation, and trolling while designing sophisticated strategies for modern information warfare. The internet and digital communications are fundamental to Putin’s repertoire of repression and manipulation, but cutting off access to the entire country punishes the Russian people and could stifle any domestic efforts to oppose and organize against the war or the regime. If ICANN had pulled the plug on the internet in Egypt or Syria, what would have become of the Arab Spring uprisings and the ability of reformers on the ground to counteract the official narrative (even if their ultimate success remained unrealized)?
ICANN rejected the request from Ukraine’s deputy prime minister in a letter Wednesday, writing that, as an independent technical organization, “ICANN has been built to ensure that the Internet works, not for its coordination role to be used to stop it from working.” President and CEO Göran Marby said ICANN did not have the ability to revoke security certificates and that such intervention in the country-code top-level domain system “would have devastating and permanent effects on the trust and utility of this global system.”
Complying with Ukraine’s request would also set a dangerous precedent that could lead to the irreparable fragmentation of the global internet and further entrench Russia’s own efforts to create a national intranet known as “Runet.”
Indeed, Russia has prepared for the possibility of being cut off from the World Wide Web. In 2019, it adopted a sovereign internet law to create a local network, including the creation of a national DNS that would be disconnected from the global internet and perpetuate the fragmentation that China, Iran, and other countries that want to control all information within their borders seek. A test last summer showed the viability of this approach. The neutrality of information and communication infrastructure is essential to maintaining the open, interoperable architecture of the internet. And ensuring the neutrality of the entity charged with making sure the architecture works is just as important.
Complying with Ukraine’s request would also risk further undermining decades of often mind-numbing work to develop global internet policy and accountability mechanisms that aim to be apolitical and inclusive of actors beyond just states or governments.
If ICANN were to comply with the request, it would amount to “institutional suicide,” as internet governance scholar Milton Mueller put it, forcing it to regulate speech and become mired in the content moderation debate.
The foundation of this global public good is already being stress-tested. Moscow has restricted access to Facebook and Twitter. Meta, Google, and TikTok have cut off access to Russian state-owned media in the European Union at the behest of EU officials. Much of this makes sense. It’s true that social media companies often wait too long before cracking down on bad state actors. The Taliban and the military junta in Myanmar were allowed to use U.S. tech platforms as part of their violent strategies to retake power. Leaders in Iran, Turkey, and Egypt have been permitted to use these same platforms for information operations aimed at stamping out political opposition and dismantling democracy. And President Donald Trump was allowed to use his perch on Twitter and microtargeting on Facebook to foment an insurrection. Some were eventually de-platformed, provoking disagreements and proposals to strip platforms of their authority to moderate content.
Still, it is better for geopolitics and content moderation (or censorship, depending on your stance) to remain at the application level rather than risk further undermining an open, interoperable internet. Weaponizing the technical standards that make the internet work, as Ukraine requests, would lead to further fragmentation along national borders and political interests, turning the growing specter of the “splinternet” into a foregone conclusion.