Farzaneh Badii, Digital Medusa
Tim Denton, Internet Society Canada Chapter
Dmitri Vitaliev, eQualitie
Alyssa Quinn, CIRA (Moderator)
- What are different forms of sanctions that impact the internet?
- What are the merits and downsides of the multistakeholder imposition of ‘internet sanctions’ during conflict?
- What are the consequences of disconnecting Russia from the Internet – or hampering access – through sanctions?
- What is the responsibility of network operators and online service providers when governments’ responses to conflict prescribe sanctions on their continued activities in the sanctioned state?
- How have multistakeholder internet governance bodies fared in protecting the global network from geopolitics?
As Western sanctions against Russia have ramped up during the invasion of Ukraine, so have calls for restrictions to Russia’s access to the global internet. Whether diplomatic, militaristic, or economic sanctions are penalties driven and imposed by nation-states against other nations, entities, or individuals, to change their behaviour. There are economic sanctions that can impact countries’ access to the internet, such as what has happened with American sanctions against Iran and Cuba. There now appears to be the possibility for internet-specific sanctions, such as through hampering access to critical internet resources like IP addresses and autonomous system networks.
There are many significant consequences from disconnecting Russians from the global internet either at the platform level and/or the infrastructural level. It would justify the narrative that the West is against Russia and thereby backfire against other sanctions. It would limit dissidents’ and liberals’ access to resources. It would, however, create decentralized networks in the country, as people would have to react to the reality of becoming more self-reliant and nationalistic on the network. It would increase the amount of people using methods to circumvent blockages made by companies. Moreover, it would only bolster efforts to disconnect other countries as well.
When countries are unclear about sanctions impacting the internet, it leaves a vacuum for individual technology companies to make their own decisions. The responses, therefore, are not cohesive because they are left up to the politics and consciousness of the companies’ decision makers. While the Government of Canada has had very strong sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine, they have issued very little guidance about the imposition of sanctions that impact the internet. On the other hand, while the United States has made exemptions for telecommunications, companies have a tendency to over-comply and therefore have stopped their services in Russia.
In the absence of direction from governments, people from the multistakeholder internet community have come together to create an open letter with ideas for how to impose internet sanctions through multistakeholderism and internet institutions. The open letter begins by refuting the feasibility of the various requests from the Ukrainian government to ICANN and RIPE NCC. It advocates for creating a minimal, multistakeholder mechanism to publish block-lists of IP addresses and domain names to which any organization can implement. The letter’s merits rest in that it is collective, based in internet institutions, and voluntary. However, concerns remain about whether such a mechanism would be timely and effective, and if such a mechanism would be subject to mission creep.
Panelists also noted the limitations of multistakeholderism in the letter’s proposals. For example, multistakeholder institutions won’t make decisions that will make the internet less open, less interoperable, and less end-to-end. This letter has opened up the conversation about what the best way to target individuals or companies is without violating internet principles. Moreover, there is no consensus about whether blocklisting and delisting as sanctions during times of conflict can be proportionate or effective. The panelists also deliberated about whether it is even appropriate to impose sanctions on something as abstract as IP addresses and ASNs.
In lieu of blocklisting IP addresses and ASNs, and due to the limitations of multistakeholder institutions to fulfill the requests of the Ukrainian government, there are solutions that the internet community can implement during conflict. For example, the internet community can help Ukrainian institutions become stronger and more resilient through raising funds, sending equipment, strengthening the network against cyber attacks, and ensuring the Ukrainian internet remains stable and resilient. Moreover, internet stakeholders could do more to make the Russian firewall less effective. Thus, while internet sanctions in the form of blocklisting or removing access to platforms may not be proportionate, appropriate, or effective, there are actions the internet community can take to support Ukraine.
- Multistakeholder internet institutions are limited in their ability to help countries in times of conflict due to their priorities of keeping the internet open and interoperable.
- When governments do not provide explicit direction to companies, it leaves a vacuum that invites individual companies and their leadership teams to make decisions, creating a patchwork response.
- Further disconnecting Russians from the global internet would justify the narrative that the West is against Russia, limit dissidents’ and liberals’ access to resources, and create decentralized networks in the country, as people would have to react to the reality of becoming more self-reliant and nationalistic on the network.
- The PCH open letter’s merits rest in that it is collective, based in internet institutions, and voluntary. However, concerns remain about whether such a mechanism would be timely and effective, and if such a mechanism would be subject to mission creep.
- While internet sanctions in the form of blocklisting or removing access to platforms may not be proportionate, appropriate, or effective, there are actions the internet community can take to support Ukraine, such as strengthening Ukrainian networks against cyber attacks and raising funds.