Wartime is a bad time to mess with the internet

Like most people, we at EFF are horrified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Also, like most people, we are not experts in military strategy or international diplomacy. But we have some experience with the internet and civil liberties, which is why we are deeply concerned that governments around the world are pressuring internet companies to interfere with critical internet infrastructure. Tinkering with the internet as part of a political or military response is likely to backfire in several ways.

There is already a lot of pressure on social media platforms. Russia is demanding that various companies, from Facebook to Google and Netflix, carry its state-sponsored content. The European Union, in an unprecedented move, has decided to ban the broadcasting and distribution of content by these outlets throughout the European Union and Ukraine is asking the European Commission to do much more.

But now the government of Ukraine has invited ICANN disconnect Russia from the internet by revoking its top-level domain names, “.ru”, “.рф” and “.su” from the root zone, in an effort to make it difficult for Russian websites and e-mail to access even for people outside as inside Russia. Ukraine has also contacted RIPE, one of five regional registries for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia, asking the organization to revoke its IP address delegation to Russia.

In practice, some of these calls are essentially impossible; ICANN can’t just push a button and start a country offline; RIPE cannot simply revoke IP addresses. But these are not the only problems: the remaking of the fundamental protocols of the Internet infrastructure is likely to lead to a series of dangerous and long-lasting consequences.

Here are some:

It deprives people of the most powerful tool for sharing information when they need it most.

While the Internet can be used to spread disinformation, it also allows everyone, including activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and ordinary people, to document and share facts in real time and resist propaganda. In fact, Russia has reportedly been trying to “unplug” itself from the internet for years so that it can fully control communications in the country. Internet service providers shouldn’t be helping the Russian government, or any other government, keep people in an information bubble.

Set a dangerous precedent.

Intervention pathways, once established, will provide state and state-sponsored actors with additional tools to control public dialogue. Once the processes and tools to break down the expression are developed or expanded, companies can expect a flood of requests to apply them, inevitably to the word those tools weren’t originally designed and companies didn’t initially intend to aim. At the platform level, state and state-sponsored actors have been doing this for some time weaponized reporting tools to silence dissent.

It compromises everyone’s security and privacy.

Any attempt to compromise the Internet infrastructure will affect the security of the Internet and its users. For example, IP address revocation means that things like Routing Policy Specification Language (RPSL), which ISPs use to describe their routing policies, and Resource Public Key Infrastructure (RPKI), which is used to enhance security for the BGP routing of the Internet infrastructure, would be severely affected. This would expose users to man-in-the-middle attacks, compromise everyday activities such as banking transactions, and undermine privacy because users would have nowhere to hide.

It undermines trust in the network and the policies on which it is built.

Trust is central to how networks self-organize and interact with other networks. It’s what ensures a resilient global communications infrastructure that can withstand pandemics and wars. That trust depends, in turn, on imperfect but scrupulous people multi-stakeholder processes develop neutral policies, rules and institutional mechanisms. Bypassing these mechanisms irreparably undermines the trust upon which the Internet is built.

We were relieved to see it ICANN And MATURE they have refused to comply with the demands of the Ukrainian government and we hope that other infrastructure organizations will follow suit. In times of crisis, we are often tempted to take previously unthinkable steps. We should resist this temptation here and take proposals like these off the table altogether. In dark times, people must be able to reach for the light, reassure their loved ones, inform themselves and others, and escape the walls of propaganda and censorship. The internet is a crucial tool for all of this – don’t mess with it.