While the rest of the world is busy sanctioning Russia, there is one sphere where the country’s interests appear to be safe: the Internet.
Russia’s ability to use the Internet to conduct information operations is world famous. How to remove Russia from SWIFT financial system, an internet ban could both serve as a sanction and deny Russia a means to continue the war. Mykhailo Fedorov, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, made just such a request on March 2.
So why aren’t world leaders talking about how to remove Russia from the Internet?
The short answer is that they can’t.
Authority ceded to ICANN
As a result of effort led by the United Statescontrol over the Internet, or rather the addressing system that broadly defines the Internet, has been turned over to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. While ostensibly created by world governments, ICANN is not an agency of those governments, nor is it accountable to them in any significant way.
Many know ICANN for its role as administrator of Internet domain names. ICANN accredits domain name registrars, the people you pay to maintain your domain on the Internet. It also establishes top-level domains such as .com, .us and .beer and is responsible for resolving domain name disputes, which is why madonna. com does not indicate a adult entertainment sitethough, given Madonna’s handiwork, the line is certainly fine.
Few are familiar with ICANN’s governance structure, which is understandable given that it is nearly impossible to describe it without a jargon dictionary. ICANN operates using a “multistakeholder model” which appears to be largely circular.
The “Emancipated Community”
Most of ICANN Board of Directors they are selected from the organization’s “Empowered Community,” nominated by a variety of committees and organizations, all but one within ICANN itself. Membership of the Empowered Community is determined by ICANN’s constituent organizations, which are mostly composed of participants in the Internet ecosphere, including academics, consultants, and employees of technology companies, such as Google, or domain registrars such as godaddy.com.
A non-voting liaison member of the council is selected by ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which is composed of representatives from global governments and international organizations. The GAC also nominates a member of the Empowered Community, which gives the entire collection of world governments one vote out of five, which is already too much for some.
The governance of the SWIFT financial transaction system, by contrast, looks like a framework of global political accountability. SWIFT was not designed to be a political tool and as a result is run by banks, not governments. SWIFT’s board of directors is elected by shareholders and, importantly, SWIFT is overseen by the G-10 central banks.
The degree to which each central bank responds to the governments of the G-10 countries varies, but it is fair to say that central banks are more attuned to the geopolitical order than the ICANN Board or the ICANN Empowered Community .
A failure of design
One could complain about the inability of the United Nations to mount a meaningful response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a practical failure, but ICANN’s failure is a failure of design.
As explained by the President and CEO of ICANN, Göran Marby reply to Ukraine’s request: “ICANN was created to ensure the functioning of the Internet, not to use its coordinating role to prevent it from functioning”. In her letter, Marby describes ICANN as “an independent technical organization” and explains that “we maintain neutrality,” but this is a misleading statement. ICANN may have technical control over aspects of the Internet, but ICANN itself is far from a purely technical organization and its neutrality is relative to its own political preferences.
Many aspects of ICANN represent political choices, such as ICANN’s structure (decentralized and politically irresponsible), choice of decision-making (consensus), and the composition of its committee and panel (which is carefully organized to maintain a particular kind of balance ). Nor is ICANN neutral on many policies, such as whether anyone other than Madonna can use madonna.com to post their content on the Internet.
These are all decisions with political consequences, and the mention of neutrality denies that neutrality itself is a political decision, not a technical one. This became clear last week when Switzerland has set aside its long tradition of neutrality freeze the assets of Russian leaders.
Neutral Internet access for both attackers and defenders in this war might be the right policy, but it is a sophistry to suggest that it is a technical rather than a political choice. I think most would respond to Ukraine’s request by saying it would wrong or misleading remove Russia from the Internet.
I agree with this sentiment: it would be more harmful than good to block Internet access through Russian domains. (There is the further question about what it means to “remove” a country from the internet.)
But those answers miss the point. The question asked by ICANN is not whether we should remove Russia from the Internet, but whether it should be possible to do so.
ICANN’s main concern is not its supposed neutrality, but its design, which replaces accountability to the world’s population, as organized by governments, with accountability to the world of technological interests, as organized by ICANN.
In the early days of the Internet, the US approach to Internet governance was privatization to encourage competition and open the Internet to world trade. These are laudable goals, but handing over regulatory authority over what is a primary medium of global communication and trade has other consequences as well, consequences that nations are only now beginning to realize.
The Internet is no more neutral resource than banks, oil depots or overflight rights. Internet governance is an inherently governmental task, and governmental tasks should not be delegated to irresponsible companies, even seemingly well-intentioned ones like ICANN.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
About the author
near Thomas is a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he teaches and writes on constitutional law, trade regulation, and national security. He was previously a member of an FCC working group on Internet security and a senior adviser to the Department of Defense.