While the rest of the world is busy imposing sanctions on Russia, there is one area where the country’s interests seem safe: the internet.
Russia’s prowess in using the Internet to conduct information operations is recognized around the world. Like kicking Russia out of the SWIFT financial system, an internet ban could serve as both a sanction and a tool to prosecute Russia for war. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov made such a request on March 2.
So why aren’t world leaders talking about how to get Russia off the Internet?
The short answer is that they cannot.
The authority was given to ICANN
As a result of the US-led effort, control of the Internet, or rather the addressing system that largely defines the Internet, was given to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. Although ostensibly created by the governments of the world, ICANN is not an agency of those governments and is not accountable to them in any meaningful way.
Many are familiar with ICANN because it has a stewardship role over Internet domain names. ICANN accredits domain name registrars – the people you pay to host 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, so madonna.com does not represent an adult entertainment site given Madonna’s work. , the line is thin.
Fewer people are familiar with ICANN’s governance structure, which is understandable given that it’s nearly impossible to describe without a jargon vocabulary. ICANN operates using a seemingly circular “multilateral model”.
A majority of ICANN’s board of directors is elected by the organization’s “Community of Authority,” with the exception of one specific to ICANN, who is nominated by various committees and organizations. Members of the Empowered Community are defined by ICANN’s constituent organizations, which are primarily comprised of participants from the Internet ecosphere, including academics, consultants, and employees of technology firms such as Google or domain registrars such as godaddy.com.
One non-voting coordinating member of the Council is elected by ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which is made up of representatives of world governments and international organizations. The GAC also appoints one member of the Plenipotentiary Community, which gives the entire collection of world governments one in five votes, which for some is already too much.
The governance of the SWIFT financial transaction system, by contrast, appears to be a landscape of global political accountability. SWIFT is not intended to be a political tool and is accordingly managed by banks, not governments. SWIFT’s board is elected by shareholders and, more notably, SWIFT is overseen by the G-10 central banks.
The degree to which each central bank is responsive to the governments of the G-10 countries varies, but it is fair to say that central banks are more aligned with the geopolitical order than either the ICANN board or the ICANN mandated community.
Failure of Design
The United Nations’ failure to respond meaningfully to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is deplorable, but ICANN’s failure is by design.
As ICANN President and CEO Goran Marby explained in response to Ukraine’s inquiry: “ICANN was created to make the Internet work, not to use its coordinating role to stop it from working.” In his letter, Marby describes ICANN as an “independent technical organization” and explains that “we maintain neutrality,” but this is a misconception. ICANN may have technical control over aspects of the Internet, but ICANN itself is more than just a technical organization, and its neutrality is tied to its own policy preferences.
Many aspects of ICANN represent policy choices, such as ICANN’s structure (decentralized and politically unaccountable), its choice of decision-making process (consensus), and its committee and group composition (carefully arranged to maintain a certain kind of balance). ICANN is not neutral on many policies, such as whether someone other than Madonna can use madonna.com to host their content on the Internet.
All these are decisions with political consequences, and by referring to neutrality, he denies that neutrality itself is a political decision, not a technical one. This was evident last week when Switzerland set aside its long tradition of neutrality to freeze the assets of Russian leaders.
In this war, neutral Internet access may be the right policy for both attackers and defenders, but it is a sophistry to suggest that it is a technical rather than a political choice. I think most would argue that it was either wrong or wrong to pull Russia off the internet in response to Ukraine’s request.
I agree with this opinion – blocking access to the Internet through Russian domains would do more harm than good. (There is a further question about what it means to “take a country off the Internet”.)
But these answers miss the point. The question ICANN is asking is not whether we can get Russia off the Internet, but whether it is possible.
The bigger concern with ICANN is not its alleged neutrality, but its design, which replaces accountability to the world’s population as organized by governments, to the world of technology interests as organized by ICANN.
In the early days of the Internet, the US approach to Internet governance was privatization to promote competition and open the Internet to world trade. These are laudable goals, but giving up regulatory authority as a key vehicle for global communication and trade has other consequences—consequences that nations are only now beginning to realize.
The Internet is no more a neutral resource than banks, oil fields, or the right to fly. Internet governance is essentially a government job, and government tasks should not be left to irresponsible corporations, even seemingly well-meaning ones like ICANN.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Write for us: Author Guidelines
Thomas Nachbar He is a professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he teaches and writes on constitutional law, trade regulation, and national security. He previously served as a member of the FCC’s internet security task force and as a senior adviser at the Department of Defense.