Wartime Is a Bad Time To Mess With the Internet

Like most people, we at EFF are horrified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Also like most people, we are not experts on military strategy or international diplomacy. But we do have some expertise 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 fundamental internet infrastructure. Tinkering with the internet as part of a political or military response is likely to backfire in multiple ways.

There is already heavy 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 prohibit the broadcasting and distribution of content by these outlets throughout the European Union, and Ukraine is asking the European Commission to do far more.

But now the government of Ukraine has called on ICANN to disconnect Russia from the internet by revoking its Top Level domain names, “.ru”, “.рф” and “.su” from the root zone, in an attempt to make access to Russian websites and email difficult for people outside as well as inside of Russia. Ukraine also reached out to RIPE, one of the five Regional Registries for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia, asking the organization to revoke IP address delegation to Russia. 

As a practical matter, some of these calls are essentially impossible; ICANN can’t just press a button and boot a country offline; RIPE can’t just revoke IP addresses. But those are not the only problems: remaking fundamental internet infrastructure protocols is likely to lead to a host of dangerous and long-lasting consequences.

Here are a few:

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

While the internet can be used to spread misinformation, it also enables everyone, including activists, human right defenders, journalists and ordinary people, to document and share the real-time facts and resist propaganda. Indeed, Russia has reportedly been trying for years to “unplug” from the internet so it can completely control communications in the country. Internet providers shouldn’t help the Russian government, or any government, keep people within an information bubble.

  • It sets a dangerous precedent

Intervention pathways, once established, will provide state and state-sponsored actors with additional tools for controlling public dialogue. Once processes and tools to take down expression are developed or expanded, companies can expect a flood of demands to apply them, inevitably to speech those tools were not originally designed, and the companies did not originally intend, to target. At the platform level, state and state-sponsored actors have long since weaponized flagging tools to silence dissent.

  • It compromises security and privacy for everyone

Any attempt to compromise the internet’s infrastructure will affect the security of the internet and its users. For example, revocation of IP addresses means that things like the Routing Policy Specification Language (RPSL), used by ISPs to describe their routing policies, and Resource Public Key Infrastructure (RPKI), which is used to improve the security for the internet’s BGP routing infrastructure, would be severely compromised. This would expose users to man-in-the-middle attacks, compromise daily activities like bank transactions, and undermine the privacy because users would have nowhere to hide. 

  • It undermines trust in the network and the policies upon which it is built

Trust is paramount to the way networks self-organize and interoperate with other networks. It is what ensures a resilient global communications infrastructure that can withstand pandemics and wars. That trust depends, in turn, on imperfect but painstaking multi-stakeholder processes to develop neutral policies, rules, and institutional mechanisms. Bypassing those mechanisms irretrievably undermines the trust upon which the internet is founded. 

We were relieved to see that ICANN and RIPE have declined to comply with the Ukrainian government’s requests, and we hope other infrastructure organizations follow suit. In moments of crisis, we are often tempted to take previously unthinkable steps. We should resist that temptation here, and take proposals like these off the table altogether. In dark times, people must be able to reach 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 that – don’t mess with it.

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