Wartime is a bad time to mess with the Internet

Like most people, we at the EFF are horrified by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Like most people, we are not experts in military strategy or international diplomacy. But we have some experience with the Internet and civil liberties, so we are deeply concerned that governments around the world are pressuring Internet companies to interfere with fundamental Internet infrastructure. Dealing with the internet as part of a political or military response is likely to backfire in many ways.

There is already serious pressure on social media platforms. Russia requires companies ranging from Facebook to Google to Netflix to carry state-funded content. In an unprecedented move, the European Union has decided to ban the broadcasting and distribution of content by these publications throughout the European Union, and Ukraine is asking the European Commission do more.

But now the Ukrainian government has called on ICANN to remove the Russian Top Level domain names “.ru”, “.рф” and “.su” from the Internet by removing them from the root zone. Russian websites and emails are difficult for people inside and outside of Russia. Ukraine also contacted RIPE, one of the five Regional Registries for parts of Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, and asked the organization to cancel IP address delegation to Russia.

As a practical matter, some of these challenges are essentially impossible; ICANN cannot simply click a button and download a country offline; RIPE simply cannot cancel IP addresses. But these are not the only problems: reconfiguring fundamental internet infrastructure protocols can have very dangerous and long-term consequences.

Here are a few:

This deprives people of the most powerful means of sharing information when they need it most.

While the Internet can be used to spread disinformation, it also allows anyone, including activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and ordinary people, to document and share real-time facts and resist propaganda. Indeed, Russia has reportedly been trying to “exit” the Internet for years so that it can fully control communications in the country. ISPs should not help the Russian government, or any government, keep people in an information bubble.

This sets a dangerous precedent.

Once identified, intervention pathways will provide state and state-sponsored actors with additional tools to monitor public dialogue. Once processes and tools are developed or expanded to eliminate speech, companies can expect a flood of demands to implement them, inevitably in speech these tools were not originally designed for and companies did not originally intend to target. At the platform level, state and state-sponsored actors have long weaponized dissent.

This compromises security and privacy for everyone.

Any attempt to disrupt the infrastructure of the Internet will affect the security of the Internet and its users. For example, the cancellation of IP addresses means that things like the Routing Policy Specification Language (RPSL), used by ISPs to describe their routing policies, and the Resource Public Key Infrastructure (RPKI), used to improve the security of the internet’s BGP routing, will be severely disrupted. This will expose users to man-in-the-middle attacks, disrupt everyday activities like banking, and compromise privacy because users will have nowhere to hide.

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

Trust is crucial for networks to self-organize and interact with other networks. This is what ensures a resilient global communications infrastructure that can withstand pandemics and wars. This trust, in turn, depends on imperfect but painstaking multilateral processes for developing neutral policies, regulations, and institutional mechanisms. Bypassing these mechanisms irreversibly undermines the trust on which the Internet is based.

We are relieved to see that ICANN and RIPE have refused to comply with the Ukrainian government’s demands, and we hope that other infrastructure organizations will follow suit. In times of crisis, we are often tempted to take previously unthinkable steps. We must resist the temptation here and take such proposals off the table altogether. In dark times, people must reach for the light, be sure of their loved ones, warn themselves and others, and be able to break free from the walls of propaganda and censorship. The Internet is an important tool for all of this – don’t mess with it.

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