There have been calls from Ukraine to cut Russia off from the internet. Non-profits have refused, while Cloudflare said, â€œRussia needs more Internet access, not less.â€ Amid all this, recent steps taken by Russia, seemingly to isolate itself, have sent commentators in a tizzy. But can Russia realistically unplug itself from the global network?
Even as western governments impose bans on all things Russian, from oligarchs, airplanes, and now even oil, natural gas, and coal, while imposing sanctions on multiple sectors, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy wanted more.
Mykhailo Fedorov, the first Ukrainian deputy prime minister and minister of digital transformation, requested the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), to cut off Russia from the global internet. In effect, Ukraine asked ICANN to revoke access to Russia’s top-level domains (TLD) (.ru, .Ñ€Ñ„, and .su), the corresponding Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates, and to shut down DNS root servers.
If this occurs, it will essentially make sites with .ru or its cyrillic equivalent domains difficult to access from within and outside of Russia.
Cutting Russia’s Access to the Internet Is Next to Impossible
ICANN, a non-profit which manages international internet coordination among countries, rejected the request and made its stand on the conflict clear as a neutral observer. â€œOur mission does not extend to taking punitive actions, issuing sanctions, or restricting access against segments of the Internet â€“ regardless of the provocations,â€ wrote GÃ¶ran Marby, the president and CEO of ICANN.
Ukraine also placed a similar demand with the RÃ©seaux IP EuropÃ©ens Network Coordination Center (RIPE NCC). This non-profit serves as the internet registry for Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. RIPE NCC, as expected, refused to take sides in the conflicts as well.
RIPE NCC, however, made an essential point in their stand for neutrality: â€œThe Executive Board of the RIPE NCC believes that the means to communicate should not be affected by domestic political disputes, international conflicts or war. This includes the provision of correctly registered Internet numbering resources.â€
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said that the Internet offers a fundamental way to communicate in the 21st century. Still, it could undermine cyber security, enable man-in-the-middle attacks, and compromise user privacy. Besides, it sets a dangerous precedent. â€œIntervention pathways, once established, will provide state and state-sponsored actors with additional tools for controlling public dialogue,â€ EFF said.
ICANN pointed out its job is to validate domain requests by a country’s authorized party. They cannot unilaterally decide to disconnect Russian domains at the behest of one government and thus violate globally agreed policies.
But more than that, purging Russia off the Internet is simply impossible. Whether or not policy dictates such a measure, there’s no killswitch in the hands of ICANN or RIPE NCC that can send Russia, or any other country for that matter, back to the pre-Internet days. â€œThe Internet is a decentralized system. No one actor has the ability to control it or shut it down,â€ Marby added.
A domain name system (DNS) is basically the Internet’s phonebook. It translates human-readable addresses such as toolbox.com into their corresponding machine-readable addresses or numbers. All machines, each with a unique IP address, use DNS to communicate with one another. Since the DNS is decentralized, it is beyond the technical ability of ICANN, RIPE NCC or any other international body to isolate Russia from the Internet.
However, what the west can do, and is doing, is sanction trade, banking and technology-sharing by Russian entities. The SWIFT ban means Russia is cut off from the international money transfer system. Additionally, over 230 companies have already cut off operations in Russia either entirely or partially.
One of these is Cogent Communications, an internet service provider with over 75,000 miles of fiber optic cable between 50 countries spanning all continents. Cogent saidOpens a new window , â€œIn light of the unwarranted and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Cogent is terminating all of your services effective at 5 PM GMT on March 4, 2022. The economic sanctions put in place as a result of the invasion and the increasingly uncertain security situation make it impossible for Cogent to continue to provide you with service.â€
Obviously, this does not mean that Russia has gone dark. But losing the services of a global carrier of nearly 25% of the international traffic will affect the Russian internet capacity. The aftershocks may include slower and inconsistent internet speeds for ordinary Russians. The likes of Meta, Twitter, and Google are also limiting the reach of Russian state media and have banned ads in the country.
Russia Fights Back, Starts Work on a Sovereign Internet
Social media tends to become an echo chamber of misinformation and disinformation, especially in crises if not kept in check. How you perceive a piece of information is influenced by which side you’re on. As a result, Russia preemptively blocked access to Facebook earlier in March.
On top of that, it looks like Russia anticipated this all, according to recent proceedings in Russia and instructions sent by Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development. Through memos sent on TelegramOpens a new window , the Russian government is asking everyone in Russia who is leveraging foreign hosting services to move their web hosting to Russia-based .ru and other domains.
This caused great concern among those closely watching the developments, referencing Russia’s experiment with Runet a few years ago. Runet is something Russia developed in case it needs to isolate itself from the global internet. President Vladimir Putin also signed the â€˜sovereign internet’ law in 2019 to this end.
â€œThe intra-Russian â€” or â€˜sovereign’ â€” Internet itself implies the creation of a copy of the global Internet within Russia with a national domain name system, a national address registry, and national Russian services with the â€˜ru’ and â€˜rf’ domains,â€ explained Sarkis Darbinyan, the managing partner at Moscow-based Digital Rights Center and founder of digital rights group Roskomsvoboda, in an interview with Meduza.
The sovereign internet law and Runet have drawn much criticism as they can be (mis)used by the Russian government to expand control over the country’s internet infrastructure. However, the Ministry of Digital Development told Kommersant that the wholesale shift to Russian domains strengthens cybersecurity.
â€œWe are preparing for various scenarios to ensure that Russian resources are available to citizens. The telegram for government agencies outlines a set of simple cyber hygiene recommendations that will help to organize work more effectively to protect our resources from malicious traffic, keep services running and control over domain names.â€
Aside from the physical confrontation, Russia and Ukraine are also embroiled in a cyber war involving numerous cybercriminal and hacktivist groups. Particularly, hacktivist group Anonymous successfully took down Russian government sites, including those of the Kremlin, Ministry of Defense, media companies, streaming services, and other sites.
Besides warding off cyberattacks, a sovereign internet in Russia would also give its establishment greater power to censor information, much like China does domestically. However, even if a decision to bring the sovereign internet is taken, the process won’t be completed overnight, Darbinyan said.